Archive for the ‘Contemporary Commentary’ Category

Posted: March 7, 2018 in Contemporary Commentary

“Into the Raging Sea” by Rachel Slade is a page turner that will make some waves around the sinking of the SS El Faro.  I’ve had the privilege of giving it a read, but no spoilers here!  You’ll need to wait for the release date.  I can tell you it will be worth it.

In the meantime, here are the blurbs, mine included.



“A Perfect Storm for a new generation, Into the Raging Sea is a masterful page-turning account of the El Faro’s sinking, one that leaves you profoundly moved by the crew’s dedication and grit, and infuriated at the disturbing conditions that led to this tragedy.” (Ben Mezrich, bestselling author of The Accidental Billionaires: The Founding of Facebook)

“Rachel Slade mashes up The Perfect Storm with a suspenseful, page-turning thriller, cutting through the corporate double-speak to shine a light on how it was that thirty-three men and women sailed into Hurricane Joaquin. Superbly written, this deserves a place on the bookshelf of modern maritime classics.” (Robert Frump, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author of Until the Sea Shall Free Them: Life, Death, and Survival in the Merchant Marine)


“An extraordinary piece of reporting. I tore through it like a novel.” (John Konrad, author of Fire on the Horizon: The Untold Story of the Gulf Oil Disaster)

“With gripping prose and edge-of-the-seat momentum, Rachel Slade takes the reader aboard the final, fatal voyage of El Faro. Into the Raging Sea imparts a profound message about the power of nature and the fallibility of human judgement even in our digitized era.” (Peter Stark, author of Astoria: Astor and Jefferson’s Lost Pacific Empire—A Tale of Ambition and Survival on the Early American Frontier)

“Bracing a story as old as seafaring itself. This minute-by-minute account illustrates in chilling detail exactly what happens when the near-infinite might of the ocean plows broadside into the hubris of men.” (Brantley Hargrove, author of The Man Who Caught the Storm: The Life of Legendary Tornado Chaser Tim Samaras)

“Rachel Slade’s Into the Raging Sea made me miss my subway stop and cancel at least one appointment. It’s a gripping, moving account of a nautical tragedy, told with equal parts verve, gusto, and compassion. Don’t miss it.” (Sarah Weinman, author of The Real Lolita: The Kidnapping of Sally Horner and the Novel that Scandalized the World)

About the Author

Rachel Slade is a Boston-based journalist, writer, and editor. She was a staff writer at Boston magazine for ten years, and her writing earned her a City and Regional Magazine Award in civic journalism. She splits her time between Brookline, Massachusetts, and Rockport, Maine.




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“Into the Raging Sea” by Rachel Slade is a page turner that will make some waves around the sinking of the SS El Faro.  I’ve had the privilege of giving it a read, but no spoilers here!  You’ll need wait for the release date.  I can tell you it will be worth it.

In the meantime, here are the blurbs, mine included.



“A Perfect Storm for a new generation, Into the Raging Sea is a masterful page-turning account of the El Faro’s sinking, one that leaves you profoundly moved by the crew’s dedication and grit, and infuriated at the disturbing conditions that led to this tragedy.” (Ben Mezrich, bestselling author of The Accidental Billionaires: The Founding of Facebook)

“Rachel Slade mashes up The Perfect Storm with a suspenseful, page-turning thriller, cutting through the corporate double-speak to shine a light on how it was that thirty-three men and women sailed into Hurricane Joaquin. Superbly written, this deserves a place on the bookshelf of modern maritime classics.” (Robert Frump, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author of Until the Sea Shall Free Them: Life, Death, and Survival in the Merchant Marine)


“An extraordinary piece of reporting. I tore through it like a novel.” (John Konrad, author of Fire on the Horizon: The Untold Story of the Gulf Oil Disaster)

“With gripping prose and edge-of-the-seat momentum, Rachel Slade takes the reader aboard the final, fatal voyage of El Faro. Into the Raging Sea imparts a profound message about the power of nature and the fallibility of human judgement even in our digitized era.” (Peter Stark, author of Astoria: Astor and Jefferson’s Lost Pacific Empire—A Tale of Ambition and Survival on the Early American Frontier)

“Bracing a story as old as seafaring itself. This minute-by-minute account illustrates in chilling detail exactly what happens when the near-infinite might of the ocean plows broadside into the hubris of men.” (Brantley Hargrove, author of The Man Who Caught the Storm: The Life of Legendary Tornado Chaser Tim Samaras)

“Rachel Slade’s Into the Raging Sea made me miss my subway stop and cancel at least one appointment. It’s a gripping, moving account of a nautical tragedy, told with equal parts verve, gusto, and compassion. Don’t miss it.” (Sarah Weinman, author of The Real Lolita: The Kidnapping of Sally Horner and the Novel that Scandalized the World)

About the Author

Rachel Slade is a Boston-based journalist, writer, and editor. She was a staff writer at Boston magazine for ten years, and her writing earned her a City and Regional Magazine Award in civic journalism. She splits her time between Brookline, Massachusetts, and Rockport, Maine.



Pardon the nostalgia.  I’m posting some of my old favorite stories from my journalistic days and this Inquirer Magazine piece is among my all-times.  This piece was also part of a coffee table book Rockin’ Down the Highway.
(And yes, I was wrong about the future of the V-8. For better or worse.)







In the parking lot of Amy Joy’s Donut Shop, Richie Brigidi slowed but did not stop. “Very depressing, Bobbie,” he said, and with the heel of his right hand levered the T-bar Hurst shifter down into second gear. The car gurgled and bubbled power.


Three women – curlers in their hair, doughnuts in their hands the slightly tired look of being 35 in their eyes – peered out the windows of their station wagon. They nodded. They smiled. Then, unmistakably, a leer began to spread across the face of each as the long, proud red hood of the car passed like an effortlessly swimming shark.


Yes, they knew. The car struck something within them, as if an old ’60s hit had been played, or the bell of an old prom rung. But before they could put a finger on just what it was, the car was gone, rumbling slowly in second gear as Brigidi cranked the wheel, sighed and said, “Nothing here, Bobbie.”


Ten years ago, 12 years ago, 14 years ago, the scene at Amy Joy’s at Cheltenham and Ogontz Avenues would have been different. Then, Brigidi would have assumed a cocky, decisive manner as he powered his car out of the lot and chirped the wheels, heading toward a dark, wide section of Route 309 not far away in Cheltenham Township. Word would spread, and the solid thump of dense American car doors slamming shut would spread it further: A match was set. Amy Joy’s would empty as Brigidi’s army tagged after him.


What would have followed was simple. Two cars would line up, side by side. A cadence would be called; sometimes a flag would be waved. Then, white-hot pure power would be set loose on the still night air. On the shift from second to third, low in the throat, bass to a tortured, snarling tenor that ripped and tore across the evening, clawing toward a climax, the sound would come:


“aahhhhwwwaaaarrrr AAAAAAAARaaaaRRRRRR”


It was the sound of a 1960s muscle car in drag-race battle. When you hear it today, as you still do sometimes, it is more than that. It is the sound of our past on the night air, a piece of Americana as important to modern popular culture as the creak of Conestoga wagons was to their time. It stands alongside combat troops, peace marchers and bull markets as a symbol of what the ’60s were all about, of the whole idea of unlimited power, of constantly bigger and better things, of wars on poverty and wars in Asia, of peace and promise and Gross National Products that roared always up, up, up like the madly whirling sound of a muscle car crescendoing through the gears forever.


And in the sense of power lost, and lost so quickly this past decade, I think the muscle car is a fitting symbol for the changes that have taken place in this land.


All of which explains something of why I recently rode with Brigidi and learned a little of how he is coming to terms with this era, having been born and raised in another one full of an abundance of American power. In that, he may be like you or me, if you are 25 to 40 years old. Except that Brigidi was a hero of that era, an honest-to-god drag-racing king of a large section of Philadelphia, and that the V-8 engine, which will become extinct sometime around 1985, played a much larger part in his life than in yours or mine.


Brigidi is 34 now, with charcoal gray flecking his hair. But when I rode with him last summer, the tattoo of crossed racing flags still showed on his right arm, and the good Lord knows the car was able.


It happened on the strip where the road gets wide


Two cool shorts standing side by side


My fuel-injected Stingray and a Four Thirteen


Revving up our engine and it sounds real mean


Tach it up, tach it up, buddy gonna shut you down.


from “Shut Down,” by the Beachboys


Brigidi’s car cost $2,574.18 new in 1966. Off the showroom floor, it was something special – bright red, with a white convertible top and the special tiger paw tires with the red-wall stripe, not white.


Under the hood, the car was simply awesome. The Oldsmobile 442 had been brought out as an Oldsmobile version of the Pontiac GTO, but it never quite gained the awesome reputation of its sister car.


Brigidi’s 442 was different. While most 442’s had a single four-barrel carburetor, his had the L-69 option: Three two-barrels sat atop Brigidi’s 400- cubic-inch engine, giving it more power.


But for some other unexplainable reason the red car was just plain hot. Maybe it was the way the car fell together at the plant. Maybe it was the way Brigidi drove it. Probably it was a combination of the two, and the tri-power, but whatever it was, other fast drivers with cars that should have easily muscled a 442 ate Brigidi’s dust instead. One moment, they were bound for glory; the next, they saw the 442’s taillights, and heard the high tenor chorus the tri-power makes in full-throated cry, gulping air for the engine.


“UuhhwaaaaAAAA! That thing would suck in air, birds and leaves off the trees,” Brigidi said.


It was a great sound, and a great car and a great driver. Brigidi was building a rep. On North Broad Street; on the Meadows near Tioga Marine Terminal; down near Pattison Avenue on Front Street, too. On any strip where the road was wide, the word spread that there was a hot Olds 442, an up and comer.


Soon, Brigidi and his buddies did not have to travel far. The boys from South Philly would come north to Amy Joy’s, circling the lot in second gear, checking the two ‘Vettes and the two 442’s that were the horses in amy Joy’s stable. There was a steady stream of such challengers, a steady stream of processions to the strip on Route 309, and a steady stream of Brigidi victories.


The car drew more than challengers, of course. It drew women, providing conquests of a different sort. “It was a good pick-up car,” Brigidi said matter-of-factly. “One in five would say yes when you asked them if they wanted to ride.”


There came a time when Brigidi stopped asking, though. One day, he cruised through his regular carwash at Broad and Godfrey only to confront a pair of smiling eyes where the stern-faced cashier normally sat.


“Nice car,” said the pretty young woman as she rang up Richie’s payment.


“Thank you very much,” Richie stammered. Then, recovering his cool, he shot back, “Want to go to the drags in it?”


The eyes were mostly shy. The young woman who would become Richie Brigidi’s wife and the mother of their son and daughter hesitated, then said: “Yeah.”


“Well, I never intended to take Terri to the drags – you don’t take something like that to a drag race on your first date,” Richie explained. They

went to the 309 Drive-In instead, but on the way back Brigidi dusted off a doggy Chevelle challenger just to show off his wheels.


Terri found that she liked racing, and the driver, quite a lot, but it was on the third date that the car, the driver and the romance were to be tested to the limits.


Terri was nuzzled close to Richie on the driver’s side when a plain black Plymouth pulled up next to them at an intersection. The driver was making all the signs, though Brigidi could not for the life of him understand why. Old ladies had cars like that. Yet the other driver was intent, almost smug.


It should have been a clue, for under the plain Plymouth exterior throbbed one of the most powerful V-8’s ever turned loose on the streets: a 440- horsepower Chrysler hemi. In the parlance of the day, it was a “Granny car,” a hot car made to look harmless, as if it belonged to the driver’s grandmother. So this time it was Richie who was surprised out of the chute. He had not even asked Terri to move over, so certain was he of dispatching the car with minimal effort.


Then, as he recognized what was happening, as the hemi’s awful surge of power torqued the Plymouth ahead like a rocket sled, Brigidi’s whole body rose high off the seat and moved above the floor-mounted shift knob. He tapped the clutch, jammed the pedal, then hurled all his weight into the speed shift, slamming down as hard as he could from first to second.


The 442 closed on the hemi as if jerked by a cord. From a racing perspective, the shift had been brilliant. The problem was that Brigidi had inadvertently sucker-punched his girlfriend in the process.


The full force of his shift had carried his hand off the end of the knob and, slamming backward toward the seat, his half-closed fist struck Terri full force on her left breast. She screamed and rolled to the side in great pain.


“I didn’t know what to do,” Brigidi said, the conflict still dividing him nearly 12 years later. “I could not stop. I could not even think of quitting.”


Intrepid, the Olds tri-power screamed forward. The hemi had the horses, not the jockey. Brigidi caught the Plymouth in second and ate up more inches, then dispatched him in third. By a full fender, it was over.


There was a hurried explanation afterward, an attempt to make things right with Terri. But that was the thing about her, and the thing about the car and the times. It didn’t take that much explaining. She understood.


The girl. the car. The races. Those were heady days. The thrill was still there for the street racing, of course, but there were matches at Atco Dragway and the Allentown-Vargo Dragway, too. Richie racked up the wins, until there was no more room on his left rear window for the little decals that signified 10 wins. He bought a second car, a black 442 hardtop which he christened “The Bachelor.” He raced it, too, but so slick was The Bachelor that he even entered it in car shows.


At the peak, his time for the quarter mile got better and better until he came off at 109 m.p.h. after only 12.71 seconds – so close to the world record for a 442, 12.63 seconds.


Richie never became the king of the region, or even Philadelphia. That honor belonged to Bill Flickthaler and his 427 Chevy Impala, christened “My Sin.” (The one time they met, Brigidi beat the Chevy out of the hole; then the Chevy simply, cleanly and purely blew the Olds away in third gear.) But Richie was the equivalent of any all-conference quarterback. His name may not be in a yearbook, but a friend of mine, who raced some back then, had a quick reply when I asked him if there was one driver he remembered from those old days.


“Brigidi,” he said, “Brigidi was the king of the clean drag-racing set.”


And far, far from Brigidi’s turf, another buddy and I checked out a muscle car that was for sale, just for kicks. We got to breezing with the seller; I mentioned Brigidi’s name. “Oh, yeah,” the seller said. “He had two cars. Both hot 442’s. One was all black, and had some sort of name. The other one was a red convertible.”


Little GTO, you’re really lookin’ fine


Three deuces and a four speed and a three-eighty-nine


When I take her out to race her, I really make her whiiineee


Why don’t you rev it up, tach it up, shut ’em down, GTO.


Ronnie and the Daytones, 1963


It was, said Jim Wangers, the inventor of the Pontiac Grand Tourismo Omigalti and the father of all mass-produced and -marketed muscle cars, an age of idolization, an age when “we made absolute gods out of our young people.”


Wangers was an advertising man, not an engineer, and therefore perhaps better able to see something out there moving in in the market before anyone else.


Pontiac was building cars that ran steadily and delivered comfortable family transportation for Dick, Jane, Dad and Mom, with Puff and Spot peeking out the back windows. But Wangers knew that the streetboys had been fooling with hot cars for years, slapping big engines in Fords and Chevies. In a memo to John DeLorean, then of Pontiac, he outlined plans for a car that would be “the fastest thing you could put your hands on.”


“We wanted to make certain that it was faster than a Corvette,” Wangers recalled. Pontiac’s biggest engine was plunked into Pontiac’s light Tempest model. Technically, it was illegal under company guidelines to build a street racer, so the first GTO came out in November 1963 as a 1964 Tempest with a GTO option – not as a model.


But the option was incredible. It created an entirely new car. It went from 0 to 60 m.p.h. in a preposterous 4.6 seconds. And it changed the roads and the marketing of autos in America for the next 10 years. Kids ignored the sporty Italian name; they just called the GTOs “goats.”


Wangers talked to Ronnie and the Daytones about a Beachboy-like song they were working on about a GTO. He tinkered with it, rewrote their lyrics, and thought the time would have been well spent if it got played somewhere, anywhere, by anyone. It stayed on the charts for 31 weeks. It sold 1.2 million copies. Between June 1964 and the end of 1968, the song was played 7 million times on the air.


Unwittingly at first, then knowingly, the Pontiac people created in moving metallic sculpture a piece of the American Dream. Incarnate, the muscle car spit fire, scorched the earth with screams of rubber, roared and bestowed upon Everyman unbelievable power to put the pedal to the metal and show the world his tail.


“What was it these cars provided?” Wangers wondered aloud. “It was an opportunity, a time for anybody to be equal to anybody else. Get into the car and the power to put almost anyone down was right under your foot.


“There was an incredible emotional involvement with these cars, just as there was with the songs. You could be who you wanted to be. You got to be the real cool guy, the guy in the ad, with the chicks interested in being a part of this. In this car, a guy could beat his teacher’s Dodge.”


Wangers was working outside of Detroit as a consultant when I talked to him last. He was still very much attached to the idea of marketing the turbo- powered, overhead cam, 1980-version of the old cars. “Performance cars,” he called them. “Of course, the sort of sheer brute power of a muscle car is gone now,” he said.


Lots of things killed it. Manufacturers started phasing them out. Americans are notorious fad buyers. Post-1973 gas prices made driving a car that got no better than 15 miles per gallon impractical. Insurance rates soared. High octane gas disappeared. Times changed.


But before they did, muscle cars stalked the streets for a solid decade, and the market itself changed. In its 1958 Dick and Jane stage, Pontiac sold 245,000 cars a year. In 1969, with its muscle-car image, Pontiac sold 934,000 cars. In 1967, you could buy for street use what was perhaps the ultimate muscle car: a Shelby Cobra stuffed with a 500-horsepower Ford V-8 engine. Essentially, it was a NASCAR racing machine.


It cost $7,000, about the price these days of a Toyota with a tape deck.


Some guys they give up living


And start dying little by little, piece by piece


Some guys come home for work and wash up


And go racin’ in the street


from “Racing in the Street,” by Bruce Springsteen


Richie got out before the great gas crunch of 1973. He was thinking about a family. He was managing a body shop. The Atco Dragways were crowded. The ennui of success jaded his street-racing days. “I thought, ‘Man, why should my car be out racing you?’ I really felt that. I did.”


So he sold the red convertible in 1970. He began his family. He was a great success in business. He bought a house, a Cadillac.


Mostly he was happy, but dark holes in the evenings yawned up at him. At such times, he would stare at the old picture a buddy had snapped of the red Olds digging hard out of the hole, a full fender ahead of Flickthaler’s legendary “My Sin” Chevy. And when one of the new-style muscle cars of the ’70s came through his body shop – a Trans Am or a Camaro Z-28 – he’d find an excuse to test-drive it. “I kept hoping one of ’em had some balls,” he recalled.


None did by the mid-’70s. The Trans Am, for example, managed 310 horsepower as late as 1973. It was rated at only 180 by 1977. They were pathetically sporty-looking dogs next to the genuine item of the ’60s.


Richie began taking some trips back to Amy Joy’s. “I missed it. I missed it so. To see the tach go up. Hit the clutch, feel the car slide sideways. Pure power. It was just gone. It had just disappeared out of my life.”


So he went to find it. He went looking for his old cars.


He found The Bachelor first, in awful shape, in Sellersville, Pa. “I saw it under a tree. I could not believe it was my old car. The guy was keeping it under a tree. A tree! The guy had ruined it, and then wanted to hold me up.”


He turned away from the rusted black car, once so clean it had sparkled at car shows in the Civic Center, and felt as if “my best friend or a brother had died or something.” He could not sleep well at nights.


Then he bumped into the guy who had bought the red convertible years ago. Brigidi was explaining all of this to me while seated behind his bar in his house. “The guy said he still had the car,” Brigidi recalled. “Then, Bobbie, guess what.”


The answer was in the flip of the door leading from the bar directly to the garage. Behind him, red paint glistened as if it were two feet deep. Mag wheels caught the light and shot stars of it back. It was the 1966 Oldsmobile red convertible with the L-69 option. Like a wooly mammoth flash-frozen in a glacier, the muscle car was intact, exact, a survivor of a modern ice age. On Feb. 25, 1978, Brigidi had bought back his car.


“Want to go back 10 years fast?” Brigidi said. The cassette deck switched on and “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” filled the car. An electric motor whined. The top arched back to show a sky of stars framed by soughing tree branches. The car gurgled power. The Stones’ hard-driving rhythm answered back, and we were rolling. Past tinny Toyotas and stuttering Datsuns we prowled in a hungry, thundering dinosaur of a car, looking for action.


Through the Northeast and Cheltenham we cruised, the car bubbling power in a throaty growl that was choked suddenly as Brigidi cut the ignition at a service station. The kid at the station was bored.


“Regular, buddy?” he asked. Brigidi winced and tossed his head, but answered politely, “Premium.”


“Fifteen years ago you think a kid that age would have to even ask?” he said.


On the street, there was an unending string of Japanese cars, VW’s and American imitations. Old, beaten Pontiacs, Plymouths and Chevies wallowed along on shot shocks. We heard the growl of what we thought was a tough car coming up on our rear. It was a Plymouth Horizon with a shot muffler.


Then, suddenly, a cocky Datzun Z cut in across a lane and spurted ahead of us, its engine winding high like an angry sewing machine. Brigidi shifted fourth to third, touched the accelerator. The unmistakable sureness and power of the V-8 engine strode easily forward in front of the churning Z. Brigidi did not even crack in the trips. That is to say, he used only two of the six barrels of the carburetor. The full battery kicks in only when the machine is floored.


“Pathetic,” Brigidi said as the Z disappeared behind us, the car’s driver not wanting to push it further.


There is nothing there. There is nothing there. Brigidi kept saying it. He was right. We kept looking for Z-28’s or Trans Ams, or any old muscle car still on the street, but they were not there. Certainly, they weren’t at Amy

Joy’s, where we found only the three women in the station wagon. Brigidi cheered when we visited the old strip on 309. “They’re still there!,” he said as we passed the quarter-mile marker of faded red and white stripes painted years ago on the median barrier. But that was all that was there.


The same loneliness held court at the Meadows, a long, wide strip of Wheat Sheaf Road off I-95. Crickets chirped. The tires of cars splashed on the interstate far away. “It was something,” Brigidi said, in a tone of benediction. “My car against yours. Plain and simple. The fastest one wins.” Alone, in the center of a deserted highway, Brigidi smiled and said, “Want to light them up?”


The car surged forward and a little to the side as the tires lit up, screamed, shrieked, then grabbed the pavement in earnest. My neck muscles tired, pulling against the force tugging my head back into the seat. One hand on the wheel, Brigidi rose over the gear shift so that all the weight was behind the flat-out speed shift down into second. The car jumped, and again veered to the side. My head snapped like a whip. Again, the shift into third; again the veer, the squeal, the surge; and again, another body slam shift into fourth, the rubber, and the drive of the car, like a mighty racehorse pounding into the stretch, still reaching for power in its gallop.


It had been just a few seconds. We were traveling over 100 miles per hour. But there was no one for the Olds to beat, and there was nowhere else to go, except back to the 1980s and Brigidi’s home.


“I’m sorry it’s so dead out there,” he said. “I guess those times are gone forever.”


I didn’t argue with him. As I walked back to my car, a diesel Oldsmobile rattled out of a neighbor’s driveway. I started my VW and drove away, not knowing at the time that there really are other muscle cars out there, in numbers large enough to draw crowds.


At 2 on a summer morning you can step into a time warp at Front and Pattison. One thousand, two thousand strong, the V-8 cultists shut off Front Street and watch as paired-off cars wind up to a makeshift starting line. Two old warriors, a Camaro and a ‘Vette from a good year, cut loose with a scream and a howl of rubber that bring the crowd surging involuntarily toward the starting line.


It seems like the eternal drag-racing scene, but a closer look shows that the few muscle cars prowling the sidelines sport patches of gray and rust-red undercoatings, like battered old war vets. Then a guy in a Cougar with his family in back takes on a station wagon with nothing special inside. Two other cars mush down the line, their pollution controls, automatic transmissions and sound-proof mufflers strangling any power their plants put out.


Brigidi’s car would mop up here, I know, but I do not tell him about this place. What goes on here does not change the accuracy of his assessment. The scene at Front and Pattison is a last stand, nothing more. The parts are running out. The cars are running down. Street racing with muscle cars is part of Brigidi’s past, not his future. He settled that the night we went cruising.


Since then, the red convertible 442 has been mothballed. The car is for his kids, he said, not for him, and not for visits to Amy Joy’s to look for something that’s not there. Some day he’ll take his kids out and show them what his youth was like, what an era was like.


I suppose it’s no big news, what he has found, but I would commend it to Ronald Reagan or anyone else who wants to return wholesale to V-8 America, to wars in Asia, or on poverty. You can’t go back 10 years real fast. “It doesn’t hurt to remember,” Brigidi concluded. “It doesn’t hurt to visit. But you can’t go back.”



All content ï¿1⁄2 1981 PHILADELPHIA INQUIRER

and may not be republished without permission.


All archives are stored on a SAVE ™ newspaper library system from MediaStream Inc., a Knight-Ridder Inc. company.





Here’s the original story Tim and I wrote 35 years ago.  This and reform efforts within Congress and the Coast Guard helped prevent a major casualty for many years — until the SS El Faro sinking in 2015.

Here’s to the men and women of the Marine Electric and the El Faro.


By    Robert R. Frump and Timothy Dwyer, Inquirer Staff Writers

Source: Philadelphia Inquirer, The (PA); 9666 words

Published: 1983-05-02

Section: LOCAL   |   Page A01   |   Edition: FINAL   |   Memo: DEATH SHIPS




Second in a series on how government programs keep


old worn U.S. ships at sea.


Tomorrow: How the maritime establishment keeps aging


ships afloat.


His ship was sinking. On the darkened bridge, Captain Phillip Corl reached for a life jacket, the last man to put one on. Now he was fumbling to get his arms through the holes of the awkward vest when the Coast Guard rescuers radioed back.


”What color are your lifeboats?” the Coast Guard asked. “State the color of your lifeboats,” the radio sputtered. Eugene Kelly, the third mate, reached past his struggling captain for the radio mike.

“Orange! International orange!” Kelly yelled back.


The shrill whistle to abandon ship blew. Kelly found himself with a walkie-talkie in his hand, standing at the top of an interior set of stairs leading down to the lifeboat deck. The radio crackled. Engineer Michael Price was still at his post, deep within the ship. Did the officers want the engine- room pumps tied down?


“Mike!” Kelly yelled into the walkie-talkie. “Get the hell out of there! We are going down!”


Then he jumped from the stairs, the walkie-talkie tumbling in front of him. It shattered to pieces on the lower deck. He crashed on top of them and lay there for a moment thinking: I’ve got to get out of here before we go down.


Outside he rushed, to this scene: Above him, Corl was climbing the rail of the deck, trying to get free of the ship. Below him, chief mate Robert Cusick was launching a lifeboat.


The lifeboat lines were paying out, paying out, paying out. Seaman Paul Dewey was on the deck reaching out, reaching out, reaching out for a line.


The ship jerked. Dewey tumbled over the rail and into the water. The vessel righted and then, with a sucking noise “like the sound of the water going out of a bathtub amplified one billion times,” the old ship turned onto its right side.


The water seemed to just come up and meet Kelly.


Dewey felt the steel of the ship pressing him down wherever he tried to swim up. The ship had capsized on top of him.


Cusick, the old chief mate, was swimming underwater as if in a dream, past the lighted porthole of the cabin where he had stood just a moment before. He looked in. The room looked normal. He clawed against the steel and swam some more.


Kelly just slipped easily into the water, only to see the huge stack of the ship poised like a hammer above him. Now it was coming down, directly on top of him, and he could only look up at it.


Freeze the scene at that moment in time. It is 4:16 a.m. Feb. 12, 30 miles off the Virginia Coast, and the men of the Marine Electric have begun the final chapter of the story of their ship.


It is a gripping story that could stand by itself, worth the telling for what it has to say about courage, survival, tragedy and luck among human beings at sea.


Yet the prologue to that story – of how the Marine Electric came to sail years past the age at which most ships are scrapped – is as compelling in its way, with moments as crucial, as the scene above.


An Inquirer investigation into the loss of the Marine Electric, based on interviews with survivors and relatives of lost crewmen, an inspection of Coast Guard records and testimony before the formal Coast Guard Marine Board of Investigation show that the wreck of the Marine Electric should never have occurred. The ship’s violations of Coast Guard safety standards should have kept her in port.


Members of the Marine Electric crew knew she was unsafe, and they were afraid. Many would not cross the Atlantic on the ship. On occasions when the ship changed from its normal coastal trade route to transatlantic grain trips, these men would take their vacations rather than make the trips.


Seamen said they looked to the Coast Guard to rescue them if the Marine Electric went down on one of her normal coastal trips. For some, it was not a question of if the Marine Electric would sink, but when.


The ship was riddled with deficiencies – a hole in its hull and holes in its hatch covers. Yet she sailed, in part because some inspections by the Coast Guard and the American Bureau of Shipping were bogus.


Checks of some crucial areas of the ship never took place, despite records that indicated they had.


Other claimed inspections were reported as having been made on days when they could not have been done. A supposed hatch-cover inspection occurred when the ship had no hatchcovers.


The result was that the Marine Electric, sailing out of Norfolk to its end and the death of 31 of its 34 crewmen, had holes in its hatches, deck and

hull, all in violation of U.S. safety requirements. Some of the holes and many of the temporary repairs went unreported by the ship’s owners – also a violation of U.S. safety codes.


Despite the ship’s many flaws, the Marine Electric was certified by the Coast Guard as seaworthy and given a Maltese Cross A1 by the American Bureau of Shipping – the highest rating for insurance and safety purposes.


It was the poor condition of the hatch covers that most worried Cusick before he sailed. Cusick was second-in-command of the vessel. He had frequently complained about the covers to his superiors and had avoided transatlantic trips on the old ship whenever he could.


All this was far from his mind as he clawed along the steel of the capsized ship, his lungs straining. Past the lighted porthole, he found a railing and turned past it. His life jacket and air-filled polyester underwear popped him to the surface. He sucked in air.


Dewey was still underwater, his oxygen all but spent, still swimming up, still hitting steel. Then, on the edge of panic, it struck him. Up was the wrong way. The ship was slanted above him. He turned and swam down. He dove down against instinct and the buoyancy of his life jacket. He reached a rail and turned past it. Freed from the underwater trap, he shot up.


He broke surface like a cork and spit up water, coughed and caught his breath. He swam on his back away from the capsized ship. He was surrounded by shipmates in the water.


“Help me, help me, ” they cried out.


He would try to help them. He would do nothing but try to help them in the next hour.


Kelly was looking at the huge stack, still falling toward him through the air in a lazy arc. He stared at it, frozen; he felt unable to escape.


A hand grabbed his life jacket at the scruff of his neck and dragged him through the water. The stack hit the water where he had been.


When Kelly looked up, he could see nothing. There was nothing to see except the strobes of the life preservers blinking eerily. No rescuers. No stars. No clouds. Nothing. The water was the same. Black. “Unbelievably black.”


It terrified him. But there would be worse moments. When there was enough light to see, he would watch his men, his colleagues, his friends, just drift away on the water, into the interminable night. Only a half-hitch held him to a life preserver; he clutched a tankerman’s red light in his hand.


Cusick, other officers and crewmen knew what they had in the old ship. Still they sailed. They liked the Marine Electric for one reason and one reason only: It was in the coastal trades.


The coastal trades meant steaming from Norfolk with coal for Somerset, Mass., and back. Thirty six hours up the coast; 36 hours back.


Dewey in fact felt lucky to have been hired 10 days earlier. The schedule meant only a few days at sea, compared with months in the transatlantic, deep- sea crossings. Family men could stay close to home. And the work was steady.


It was, as third mate Eugene Kelly said, a “milk-toast run.” The old salts could have the transatlantic runs, two weeks each way, with just the ocean to stare at. Most of the men on the Marine Electric could park their cars at the Somerset power plant; when they came in, they could zip home, ”like we were shore workers and get a night at home,” Cusick said.


The bad news was that cargo carried between two U.S. points must be moved on U.S. flag vessels – built in the States and crewed by Americans. And many of those vessels are old rustbuckets. “Almost 80 percent,” Capt. H.A. Downing of the Marine Transport Lines (MTL), owner of the Marine Electric, would say.


It didn’t take experts to tell that the ships were rustbuckets.


A month before the Marine Electric left on her last voyage, Sheree Browning visited the ship. Her husband, Steve, a ship’s engineer, was working late. He said that she might as well come down to the dock and hang around the ship watching television until he got through at midnight.


On the way, they drove by a sleek, new ship, and Sharee asked her husband: ”Is that your ship?”


No, it wasn’t, he said.


“Then we drove down to this little rust boat in the back and I said: ‘Don’t tell me this is it?’ And he said: ‘Yes.’ And I said: ‘My God’ and thought to myself: ‘This thing is terrible-looking. I’d be scared to go across the harbor in this thing.’ ”


The men who worked on the ship weren’t afraid to go across the harbor. The ship’s second mate, Clayton Babineau, for one, took last summer off and worked on the roof of his house while the Marine Electric delivered grain to Israel

because he didn’t think the ship safe enough to make the trips.


Cusick, who had been a merchant mariner for nearly 40 years, had in fact declined the command of another old vessel for that very reason. He would have earned more on the other vessel – would in fact have been skipper, not just chief mate.


Cusick mightily feared the condition of the hatches of the Marine Electric and the other aging members of the U.S. bulk fleet.


“Bill, you know what you got here, these old ships,” he said at dockside to his old friend, William H.C. Long, a fellow officer of the Marine Electric. ”You know these old ships, these hatchcovers on these old ships. . . . ”


The Coast Guard makes few rescues in the middle of the Atlantic, but the sea lanes sailed by the Marine Electric in the coastal trade were only about 30 miles out.


If the Marine Electric sank, Cusick knew the Coast Guard would be near. “I always figured the Coast Guard would come out and get me,” said. He rejoined the Marine Electric in November when the ship resumed its coastal route.


There was no time for talk of safety matters on the docks Thursday, Feb. 10, for the crew members were busy getting ready to sail, and a long mechanical arm attached to Norfolk and Western Pier 6 was filling the Marine Electric’s five cargo holds with 24,800 tons of granulated coal.


A fierce winter storm that was to bury the East Coast under a record accumulation of snow, was closing in. Sherree Browning’s husband bid no lingering farewell to his wife. She dropped him at the dock. He turned and said, “Put your foot to the floor of the truck and don’t look back until you get home.”


Still, she thought about turning back. She almost did – to see him leave. She felt something was wrong, but the thought passed, and she went home.


Captain Phillip Corl, who was substituting for the ship’s permanent master for this run, had a last-minute thought too. He acted on it. His wife, Alice, was to have accompanied him on this trip. But the weather gave Corl pause. At the last minute, he sent her ashore.


By 11 p.m. the loading was done. It was, Cusick noted, a good job. The bow was drawing 34.04 feet. The stern drew 34.04 feet. Marine Transport Lines, Cusick said, was good about that. The company never tried to overload. Never even hinted that it would like to. There was no percentage in it.


The ship cast off almost immediately upon loading, and Cusick set his men about the business of dogging down the hatches – fastening clamps as the ship approached the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay and headed for the ocean.


The pilot was dropped to a launch at 2 a.m. Friday as the Marine Electric neared the tunnel-bridge system that spans the mouth of the bay. A good-size sea was running. A gale was blowing from the northeast. None of this concerned Cusick particularly. “We had gone out many times in this type of weather.”


When he turned in about 3 a.m. any apprehension he had about the ship coming through the storm was put to rest by this recurring thought: If we go down, the Coast Guard will come out and get us.


He trusted the Coast Guard capacity for sea rescues, but he had seen enough not to trust the Coast Guard ship-safety-inspection procedures.


The ship heading out into the storm was riddled with holes. None was big enough to sink the ship by itself. And none was big enough to make the owners retire the old ship. But added up, they were enough to keep it at dock for not meeting Coast Guard regulations. More than enough, in fact.


Richard Roberts, another third mate, told Kelly it was his last trip on the old ship. The officers had long complained about the condition of the ship. Clayton Babineau used to kid Kelly about the ship’s condition:


“Think they’ll be chopping her up for razor blades?” he would joke, once they had made it home safely from another trip. It was a reference to the universal seamen’s metaphor – “Cut her into razor blades” – for scrapping a ship.


Kelly would answer him: “Can’t make razor blades out of rust.”


Once over dinner, Kelly said, chief engineer Richard Powers, who was in charge of maintenance on board, had told him the company was reluctant to put a lot of money into the Marine Electric because it planned either to scrap the ship within two years or place it under a foreign flag of convenience.


“It was a calculated gamble,” Kelly concluded. “If it paid off, they made a lot of money. If it didn’t . . .. ”


Kelly himself would not walk over the hatches, as some crew members did when they were closing them up. “I always expected to look down in the hold one day and see him lying flat on his back,” he said of one crew member who did.


One day, Kelly beamed a flashlight on the deck and was horrified when the light passed through a hole and shone on the bottom of the hold.


Cusick drew dozens of sketches of the wasted areas of the hatches, which had been patched with common duct tape and epoxy glue – Red Hand, they called the glue. He gave the sketches to the company, expecting that repairs would be made. They were not.


Kelly and Cusick were concerned about a discovery they made at the dock in Somerset before embarking on the trip immediately preceding the last voyage.


“Mate, come quick,” Kelly said to Cusick. “There is a hole in the



There was indeed. The number-one wing tank on the port side was being filled with water to steady the vessel. But water was pouring out from this tank through a jagged hole in the hull three inches in diameter and about five feet down from the deck, well above the water in calm weather, but a hole in the hull nevertheless.


They figured the hole had been made by a bulldozer while the ship was being unloaded at Somerset.


The law states that such a breach of the hull must be reported to the American Bureau of Shipping and the U.S. Coast Guard. Regulations also state that repairs made to a hull must be inspected and approved.


Cusick reported the hole to Captain James K. Farnham, the permanent master, and then patched it crudely. He put the bottom of a three-pound coffee can over the hole, backed it with a cement-filled box and braced it with a timber. Farnham in turn reported it to Joseph Thelgie, the superintendent of maintenance for MTL. But nothing was done to replace it.


Did Thelgie report it? Cusick wondered. Thelgie had not.”This was an oversight on my part,” he was to say later.


Marine Transport Lines, owner of the Marine Electric, had a reputation as one of the best bulk-ship operators in the U.S. “A first-rate company in all ways,” said a ship surveyor active for 30 years. MTL, as it was known in the trade, was in turn owned by a large international, transportation-oriented company, the Chicago-based GATX Corp.


Unlike some operators with their one-ship corporations, MTL had money for maintenance. It traced its ancestry to 1816. In 1982, its revenues were $112.9 million with a net income of $2.4 million.


It did not have just two or three ships. It owned, chartered or operated a fleet of 34 vessels under U.S., British, Liberian and Panamanian flags.


There were, in fact, three fleets managed by MTL. The Military Sealift Command wing, with nine tankers, had a $185 million contract that made it the 79th largest defense contractor.


MTL had not cheated the Navy – as was the habit of some U.S. shipowners – by offering to carry Navy cargoes in good ships but then charging outrageous rates while using decrepit old ships.


The MTL fleet used to carry Navy cargoes was built in the mid-1970s and financed by the Irving Trust Co. These modern ships, like the Sealift Pacific, which rescued 186 Vietnamese boat people in July 1980, enhanced the reputation of the American merchant fleet.


In its second fleet, MTL had some of the largest and most commercial tankers in the world. The B.T. Alaska and the B.T. San Diego brought oil from Alaska under a U.S. flag. MTL also had foreign flag ships. There was the new $13 million ship the Oswego Prima, which it operated for the Oswego Chemical Corp., and just recently, MTL bought a new tanker for about $28 million from a Spanish shipyard.


Finally, MTL had a fleet of six World War II-era ships like the Marine Electric called T-2s – all of them more than 35 years old, hardly to be expected in a first-class fleet. In fact, the 22-year-old Oswego Peace, a foreign-flag ship operated by MTL, was scrapped in Taiwan in 1982, while the 38-year-old Marine Electric sailed on.


Only if they flew a U.S. flag would MTL ships live past 30.


Yet the T-2s served a specific and profitable purpose. They were, after all, built in this country. They were patched and kept afloat to participate in the protected trades reserved for U.S. vessels.


For instance, occasionally some of the old ships would sail in the cargo- preference trades under which U.S. Food for Peace grain was carried abroad. (Those cross-ocean trips to Haifa, Israel, with loads of grain were the ones Cusick and Roberts feared most.)


New American ships that could participate in the preference trades cost too much to build in U.S. yards – sometimes three to four times the cost of similar construction in foreign yards. So old U.S. merchant ships were saved.


The T-2s operated by MTL included the Marine Chemical Transporter, owned by Union Carbide Co., and the Marine Eagle, owned by the Du Pont Co. The fleet also included the Marine Floridian, a chemical carrier owned by an MTL subsidiary, as well as the Marine Texan and the Marine Duval, two MTL sulphur carriers.


All were well over 30 years old. Each had been jumboized – enlarged to carry more cargo. And all but one had a record of accidents and breakdowns typical of old ships operated so long past their prime. Age-related equipment-failures had left some drifting helplessly at sea, vulnerable to disaster.


For example, the Marine Chemical Transporter’s main propulsion system failed in the Straits of Florida in January 1978. A Coast Guard report noted the cause was the failure of a part “due to deterioration” that allowed acid to enter the steam system. (Another Coast Guard inspection on Feb. 19, 1981, found that a pin on a lifeboat on that ship had simply sheared off “due to fatigue.” The lifeboat therefore could not be launched properly.)


There had been many other T-2 problems for MTL, including the loss of 39 men on the Marine Sulphur Queen in 1963.


Then, there was the Marine Electric.


According to MTL officials, the 38-year-old converted T-2 was lost because she turned at a crucial moment on her last voyage to aid a fishing vessel named the Theodora.


The Marine Electric and the Theodora first crossed paths on Friday, after the coal carrier had reached the stormy North Atlantic. All that night and for most of Friday the big ship had battled 25-foot waves and blizzard conditions with winds gusting at Force 10, more than 55 miles per hour.


Kelly, Cusick and Dewey watched as the Marine Electric passed well to the east of the Theodora about 3:30 p.m. The fishing boat was struggling slowly but successfully on a westbound course toward shore and shelter.


However, a short time later, as the storm intensified, the Theodora began taking on water. Her pumps could not keep up with the flooding, and the Coast Guard asked the Marine Electric to turn back to help the Theodora.


Corl, the captain, agreed. But he warned the Coast Guard that the Marine Electric was also struggling in the seas. In fact, the ship was “hove to” at the time – going as slowly as she could, maintaining just enough forward motion to avoid falling into the wave troughs and wallowing helplessly.


Under the circumstances, Corl executed the full 180 degree turn without much trouble, avoiding being swamped in the troughs, a hazard of such maneuvers. The Marine Electric was only in the trough briefly – for maybe two or three rolls.


Kelly, outside the deckhouse at the stern, felt no discomfort as the Marine Electric swung about at 4:10 p.m. Friday. Once the ship was turned, the wind came from astern, and Kelly, now exposed to the elements, hurried back inside.


Later during supper someone commented on how well the “old man” had handled the turn.


“Can you see us on radar?” the Theodora asked the Marine Electric by radio at 4:36 p.m.


“Yes,” came the reply. “You are 1.2 miles due south of us.” The Marine Electric continued to shadow the Theodora as the fishing vessel, then well off the Winter Quarter Shoals of Virignia, moved toward shelter.


An hour passed, and the Coast Guard asked the Marine Electric at 4:38 p.m.: ”Can you stand by until midnight?”


“Well if you want me to stand by . . . ,” came the reply from the Marine Electric. It is believed Corl was speaking: “I’m having problems out here myself in this . . . weather.”


“Marine Electric, if you can, we would like you to stand by as long as possible,” the Coast Guard answered.


It was 6:22 p.m. The lights on the bridge would have been lowered then to enhance visibility and the reading of instruments.


“I don’t know if I’m going to be able to keep this course,” came the answer from the Marine Electric. “I’m taking an awful beating out here. I’m going to be in trouble myself pretty soon.”


Two minutes later the Coast Guard gave the Marine Electric’s officers permission to resume their northward course. A rescue boat was nearing the Theodora. A chopper had arrived and had lowered a pump to the fishing boat. The captain of the Theodora reported that his boat was proceeding without any problems and no longer needed the Marine Electric’s assistance.


Sometime during this errand of mercy, MTL executives now theorize, the ship sealed its own fate.


The ship was in an area spotted with shoals. The water was as shallow as 40 feet and the vessel, which drew 34, easily could have struck one, the company executives have testified. Such a grounding would have been virtually unnoticeable as the ship pitched and bucked in 35-foot waves, said executive vice president H.A. Downing.


A little hole opened and then widened into a long crack that eventually grew into a gap 36 feet long and 7 feet wide, a tear from port to starboard across the hull of the ship, 40 feet back from the bow, company executives theorize.


There is no doubt that the rip is there: Divers have documented it. But did it result from hitting a sandbar?


Cusick was on the bridge during the turn and the escort of the Theodora. He recalled nothing that would indicate a grounding. No thumps. No bumps. Nothing. Kelly and Dewey felt nothing either.


“This is no reflection on the crew or officers,” said MTL’s Downing, who is a sea captain himself. “But they are wrong. With waves running 30 to 35 feet, you come down hard in the water. You could hit sand bottom and never know it.”


Cusick, however, has said he would never be convinced of that. He was on the bridge. He had kept an eye on the charts and depth-readings, he said. And, he noted, the Marine Electric never came close to the old coal route that ships he had served on used to follow; a route that was well west of the Theodora’s position and close to the shoals.


At no time did the ship enter water shallower than 16 fathoms – 96 feet – according to Cusick. Moroever, the fishing boat captain, with a fish-finder that recorded depths, said the Marine Electric never went into water shallower than 110 feet. The Coast Guard’s estimate indicates that at the Marine Electric’s closest approach to charted shoals she was 3 miles from the nearest shoal in water more than 12 fathoms.


It was at that point – 38 degrees 50.2 minutes north; 74 degrees 57.3 minutes west – that the Coast Guard released the Marine Electric from escort duty.


Theodora captain Jennings Hayward radioed the Marine Electric: “I thank you very much, old dog, and I really appreciate what you did. . . . Thank you very much and good luck to you.”


The Marine Electric turned back north, with no luck in sight.


Dewey, Cusick and Kelly all thought at the time that the worst of a bad storm had ended. Kelly was the officer on the bridge until midnight. All seemed routine. Dewey rested, awaiting the start of his shift at midnight. Cusick was bushed. He turned in.


None had a hint that the turn they made from the Theodora put them on their final course.


Yet the last two years of the Marine Electric’s existence could be seen as a succession of crucial moments leading squarely to that end. Each voyage the old ship made might well have ended in disaster that lay just ahead.


An episode two years earlier may have been the last best chance the Coast Guard had to avert disaster. The worn hatch covers of the old ship were to have been repaired as part of work scheduled for the Marine Electric at the drydock at the Jacksonville Shipyards Inc. in January 1981. The hatch- cover work was included on 86 legal-size pages of repair orders.


Some work on the hatch covers was done. Thirty-one metal patches were welded on to renew them and reinforce their strength.


But other work on the covers was not done properly.


New gaskets were to have been installed to improve the cover seal against water. But almost the reverse happened, according to Cusick. The original 59mm gaskets were replaced by shorter gaskets, he said. The result was an ”ineffective” seal between gasket and hatch lid.


The hatch covers had been taken off during the drydock inspection for work and were brought back only the day before the Marine Electric set sail again. When the hatch covers were placed back on the ship, they were warped, still contained holes and would not open or close properly.


“The hatches were put on at the last moment, at the last day,” Cusick explained. “We spent the whole night trying to get them to open and close. They were in much worse condition as far as opening and closing the hatch covers than they were when we took them off. None of the sealing bars would work, because this particular gasket, this short gasket, wasn’t even reaching in many cases to the sealing bar. Instead of the gasket itself coming down in the middle of the knife-edge of the gutter, it was missing it entirely.


“It was very, very fouled up. It was so bad that they got the MacGregor company down to work on it.”


Maxwell S. Graham represented MacGregor Land and Sea, the manufacturer of the hatch covers. He worked on them beginning March 8 – 12 days after the vessel was cleared and approved by the U.S. Coast Guard and American Bureau of Shipping inspectors in Jacksonville. His assessment: “Covers will not open or close correctly. . . . Once again it is emphasized that the panels are not considered watertight and much work is required to make them so.”


However, on June 8, 1981, the Marine Electric was “certificated” – it officially received a Coast Guard certificate that stated all was well with the ship. The hatch covers still had not been repaired or tested for strength or weathertightness by the Coast Guard or the ABS. In fact, inspectors for both agencies never even looked closely at the hatch covers. Their inspections were done while the covers were open and stacked like dominoes so only the surface of the first and last panel in each stack was visible.


More than a year later, Graham was still being called to work on the hatch covers. In November 1982, he noted that he had found the panels of number 3 hatch in poor condition during a March 1981 post-drydock visit to the ship. Said Graham in an invoice and analysis:


“They have deteriorated badly in the interim. At present the coamings (raised edges of the hatch) have holes in the wheel tracks and are so wasted that there is no strength left to support the weight of the panels without further distortion. The coaming compression bar is badly scaled and wasted such that it should be renewed . . .. The top plates are weak, wasted, buckled and holed in many places . . .. The rubber gasket channels are of an incorrect size and do not fit correctly to the adjacent panels.


“To compound this problem the side skirts bend inboard and foul the compression bar. . . . The panels on the remaining hatches appear to be in a similar condition. A judgment as to the seaworthiness and cargo protection capabilities of these panels must be examined” according to the ship’s classification to fully determine their exact state “with an eye to the duration of further use (of the covers), if any.”


The position of Marine Transport Lines was and is that the ship was in good shape with sea-tight hatches. “The cargo never got wet,” said Thelgie, the fleet superintendent. He said Graham was simply trying to hawk his wares – not seriously assess the condition of the ship.


Captain James D. Farnham, the permanent master of the ship, said he felt the hatch covers were worn but seaworthy. He said he had sailed the ship in seas similar to those the Marine Electric faced on its final trip, and that they had held up fine.


And Basil Andriopolous, MTL’s land-based port engineer, agreed: The ship was in good shape. The hatch covers were sound. If there were problems with the ship, they were there only because Richard Powers, the chief engineer, did not report them. And Powers? He could not answer these questions. He died when the Marine Electric went down.


The MacGregor representative had a slightly different analysis.


“My understanding is that Mr. Thelgie was caught between two positions,” Graham was to say later. “One was operating within a budget and the other was operating the vessel.”


How could the old ship sail in violation of the regulations that required hatch covers to be weathertight and able to sustain 210 pounds of pressure per square foot?


The Coast Guard inspector, Lt. James Guidish in Jacksonville, said he never looked at the hatches. He said he didn’t even know how to go about testing the seaworthiness of a hatch cover and never attempted a test because the owner’s representative assured him that the crew would carry out the tests after the ship left Jacksonville.


The tests were never conducted.


The ABS inspector, Serge V. Simeonidis, said he inspected the hatch covers on the ship carefully. The problem with that assurance is that he said he inspected the covers on the ship when the ship had no hatch covers; they were not there during his inspection.


Cusick, who was on the vessel at the time, said no ABS inspector looked at them. The ABS man said he looked at them last on Feb. 22, 1981, and had looked at them several times during the week prior to that. In fact, Cusick said, the hatch covers were not returned until Feb. 23.


Not until November 1982 did the company replace any of the cover panels – and then only one. The month before the Marine Electric sank, Farnham asked Cusick to sketch the hatch covers for possible future repair. The sketches detailed many badly worn areas – some up to 16 feet long by 2 feet wide. There were so many pinholes in the covers that the daylight came through when they were closed.


The hatch covers were so bad that the deck crews no longer tried to control the rust with scrubbing and many coats of lead paint. When rust ate through the covers, the crew just slopped flat black paint over them to cover it.


By the time the Marine Electric went to sea on what would be its last voyage, the hatch covers had deteriorated even further. They still did not close tightly. Cusick said the hatch covers were in awful shape.


The deck, too, had some holes in the area between the hatches. Those holes would also be plugged by the crew with the Red Hand, an expoxy glue. Cusick asked that “doublers” – big iron patches – be welded on the deck in some places.


Kelly noticed a hole in the deck that had been circled with white chalk. It was only three inches long and a little less than an inch wide. But it had penetrated the full depth of the metal deck. The hold below was visible. That hole worried him more than the one he had found in the hull, he said later.


Those were some of the deficiencies of the Marine Electric. Any inspector aboard would have to notice them. There were plenty of occasions when inspectors were on board:


In 1981: May 5, 10, 24; June 8, 11; July 1, and Dec. 19 and 31.


In 1982: Jan. 18; Feb. 8; March 21, and Nov. 3.


And the last on Jan. 15, 1983. A notation in the Coast Guard computer says: ”Mid-period inspection. Okay.”


The vessel was never stopped.


If there were any consolation in sailing on such a ship during the winter of 1983, it was that the required bienniel drydock for repairs was not far off. It was scheduled for February.


But then on Dec. 27, 1982, there was a letter from Thelgie to the Coast Guard requesting a delay in the drydocking until April 1. He said that New England Power Company, which was receiving the coal being carried by the ship, had asked that it remain in service until then.


The power company was to say later that it made no such request in

December, and in fact had a barge lined up to replace the Marine Electric. It also had a 35-day reserve of coal on Feb. 10, the day the Marine Electric left on its final voyage.


But the Coast Guard agreed to the MTL request. The drydock could wait.


Now, all the chances to avert disaster were gone as the Marine Electric left the Theodora to resume course 040 north about 7 p.m. Friday, Feb. 11.


The helmsman constantly had to swing hard right rudder to hard left rudder just to keep the ship on course for what would be the ship’s last eight hours.


Kelly was on the 8 p.m.-to-midnight watch – in charge of the bridge as a third mate. He could hear the Coast Guard cutter and the Theodora exchange radio messages as the fishing boat headed toward the safety of Chincoteague Passage.


Then he settled in to the peaceful rhythyms of a ship’s bridge. All the electronic equipment was working well. The winds had subsided some – from Force 10 to Force 5 – though it still was a rotten night at sea. Captain Corl had been up all night. Now, he was napping in the chartroom behind the bridge on a settee.


The ship was making little progress. Sometimes its speed was a little over a knot. But at times it was less than 0.3 knots. By midnight, when Kelly’s watch ended, the ship had traveled only 1 1/2 to 2 miles, rolling with the 20-foot waves.


But there was no list or harbinger of disaster. Waves broke across the deck, washing over the hatch covers – but not breaking on them.


It was almost back to routine now. The Marine Electric had seen worse weather. Other ships were untroubled. Richard Roberts, the other third mate, relieved Kelly at midnight. He looked at the chart, and Kelly told him that Corl wanted to be kept posted every half-hour.


Kelly, exhausted from a day and night of bad weather during which he could not sleep, turned in and finally slept. Dewey, an able-bodied seaman, took the lookout outside on the starboard wing, the exposed area projecting to the right of the bridge. Cusick had turned in an hour before.


Calmly in the mess room, Dewey read a novel after he was relieved, waiting until 2 a.m. when he was scheduled to take the wheel.


But then, at 1:15 a.m., the handling of the vessel changed.


The bow was sluggish; it was not coming up from the water as much as it had, Roberts would tell Kelly. It seemed as if the ship was down at the head. Roberts shook the captain awake.


Dewey took the wheel at 2 a.m. Captain Corl and Roberts puzzled over the bow. They were certain something was wrong. They tried to call the engine room to start pumping operations. But the telephones had failed. About 2:45 a.m., a seamen was sent to round up the other officers and send messages to the engine room. Clearly, something was wrong.


Cusick had been awakened by Corl. “Come up on the bridge, mate,” Corl said. “I believe that we are in trouble. I think she’s settling by the head. This may be my imagination,” Corl continued. “With the way the sea is running, I can’t really tell.”


Cusick raced to the bridge. He took one look. He ran to get Powers, the chief engineer. It was apparent: The seas were breaking over the bow.


The seaman who had stirred Kelly told him there were problems. The captain wanted the officers to report to the bridge, wearing their life jackets.


The third mate washed his face and brushed his teeth. He dressed calmly and

went to the bridge. He stood in the rear, away from the large forward window, to let his eyes adjust. Then he stepped forward to the window and stared into the storm.


It was his first glimpse of the Marine Electric’s fate. The waves that had broken over the bow earlier now covered the front portion of the vessel. Green water covered hatch number one and almost all of number two. The waves were breaking on hatch number three and against the base of the ship’s house from which those on the bridge looked out.


The Marine Electric was going down. It was nearly 3 a.m. Saturday, Feb. 12, and the 38-year-old converted World War II-tanker and most of its crew had only hours to live.


Powers, Cusick and Corl decided to call the Coast Guard. At 2:51 a.m., Corl asked for assistance:


“I am approximately 30 miles from Delaware Bay entrance and I’m going down by the head. I seem to be taking on water forward. I’m going to try to head for Delaware Bay. . . . We are positively in bad shape. Positively in bad shape, we need someone to come out and give us some assistance.”


Corl told them that he did not really know what was wrong.


Trying to discover what was happening, the crew shined flashlights from the bridge. But the beams died in the spray of the waves. Powers ran below to get his big red light with two handles on it.


He gave it to Kelly and told him to shine it toward the bow. The beam pierced the storm. Kelly could see the small white doghouse on the bow. It would appear and disappear. He thought the entire bow was under 6 to 7 feet of water. He could not see the hatches.


Powers came inside and told Kelly he thought the number-one hatch had been stove in. Kelly still could not see for sure. There was too much water and 400 feet of distance between the bridge and hatch covers.


Pumping continued. There was a good head of pressure from the starboard wing tanks, which meant they probably were flooded.


At about 3:30 a.m., Corl told Cusick to ready the lifeboats. The chief mate mustered his crew on the starboard boat deck. It was as if a routine drill were being held. It went like clockwork. Farnham had drilled the crew well. They took the covers off the lifeboat, carefully folding and stowing them.


Cusick believed the covers would be replaced soon, that the crew would be rescued before they had to use the lifeboats. If we get into trouble, the Coast Guard will come and get us.


“It was the farthest thing from our mind that what was about to happen would happen,” Cusick said.


On the way to check the lifeboat operation, Kelly stopped where the life rings were stored and piled them up on the deck. “I don’t know why I did it,” he would said later. “I was never trained to do it. Nobody told me to do it. I just did.”


Kelly functioned with an automatic sense that amazed him. He freed the EPIRB, the emergency radio transmitter that sends a continuous SOS. He headed back to the bridge.


There, Dewey, still at the helm, had some steerage, but not much. Corl had ordered a course change from a northeasterly 040 to 000 – due north. The vessel was traveling at 1.3 knots. Dewey could see and feel the front of the ship continuing to sink slowly.


Did the ship have survior suits? the Coast Guard asked by radio.


No, just life jackets.


Cusick said the lifeboats were swung out over the water but not lowered. He feared they would be damaged in the heavy seas if lowered as the ship rolled. The inflatable life rafts had been hauled down to the boat deck in their canisters. They were ready.


About 3:40 a.m. Dewey noticed the Marine Electric was no longer sinking only at the bow.


It was listing to starboard. By 3:55 a.m. there was a five-degree list. It would increase to 14 degrees when the ship rolled in the waves. That left the lifeboats only about five feet above the sea.


They asked the Coast Guard if there were any vessels in the area. Minutes later, Albion Lane, the radioman, was told there were two merchant ships in the vicinity: The closest one would reach the Marine Electric at 6 a.m.


There was a sigh of despair from the officers. Everyone knew, Kelly said, that the Marine Electric would not last until then. They hated the thought of going into the water in lifeboats.


At 4:07 a.m., the ship shifted more to starboard. A little later, there was a further shift to 10 degrees.


It was enough for Corl. He radioed the Coast Guard: “I think I’m going to lose my ship here . . .. We are taking a real bad list to starboard.” Then he called the engine room on the walkie-talkie: “Secure the engine. Stop the engine. Evacuate the engine room.”


Corl told Dewey there was no sense trying to steer. Dewey left the rudder hard to port and began to leave by the outside passage. Kelly yelled to him. Go down the inside passage. There was too much list for the outside ladder.


On the radio, Corl told the Coast Guard he was going to abandon ship. Now.


At 4:14 a.m., the Marine Electric broadcast its final radio transmission: ”We are abandoning ship right now. We are abandoning ship right now.”


He put down the radio and reached for a life jacket – the last man to do so.


The whistle blew. The men rushed through their duties, Cusick and Dewey at the lifeboats, Kelly on the bridge. He paused on one deck and heaved life rings into the black void.


Then the boat turned.


“It just went like this, it just went like this,” Cusick said, moving his hand in the arc of an inverted “U.”


”Shhhhhhweeerrrrrrppppppp.” At one instant he was at the forward end of the lifeboat. A second later he was in the water, clawing and swimming below it.


Cusick passed the porthole of the room where he had been standing. The

lights were still on. He looked in as if in a dream. He swam by it, clawing, swiming, swimming.


Then he broke the surface and began swimming from the ship, turning onto his back to catch his breath and rest. Then he would swim again.


He swam for half an hour. Then he found an oar. He hung onto it. The seas would raise him from the water. He would look back. There were all the strobe

lights of the life jackets winking away. He could hear cries. There were groans from the darkness.


He thought he saw Powers flashing his light – the tankerman’s light. As he came up on the crest of a wave in the pitch dark, he saw the shape of a lifeboat. Not the one they had tried to launch, but the other, which had been torn lose from the ship. It was swamped. Cusick swam for it. It took him half an hour.


Dewey, trapped under the ship, had reversed direction by now and popped to the surface. He swam on his back away from the ship. He was surrounded by people in the water.


“Help me, help me, ” they cried.


Dewey, reaching as he swam, felt a line in the darkness. He turned to look.


On the end of the 10-foot line was a life raft in its canister. He placed his feet against it. He pulled hard on the rope. The canister popped open and the raft inflated – and in the process it blew Dewey from the raft.


He swam back. Three other seamen were there. Dewey struggled for 15 to 20 minutes. The raft had a canopy with the front and back sides open. The sides were high. Finally, Dewey clambered in.


Another seaman – Dewey, who had been on the ship only 10 days, could not remember his name – tried to get in. Dewey tried to pull him in. Heavy seas washed over them.


Dewey could not pull him in. The seaman was nearly motionless, frozen by the sea.


Dewey yelled to the other two seamen: Hang onto the life line around the raft.


The second mate, Clayton Babineau, swam over. Dewey could not get him in the raft either, even with Babineau trying to help. The second mate was in control, though. He was doing what officers are there for. He commanded.


Put the ladder down, he told Dewey. If Dewey would help him get in, he would help Dewey get everyone else in.


There was no ladder. Dewey found a cargo net draped over the other side. The seamen were pleading for help, unable to help themselves.


Follow the line! Dewey told them. Work your way around! A cargo net was draped over the other side. He yelled and yelled.


And the men worked their way around.


Babineau tried the cargo net.


Even with Dewey’s help, he could not get in.


His hands just did not work. He could not grab on top of the raft. The net was flush there, providing no handhold.


Dewey placed Babineau’s numbed hand in the net. He gathered the net so Babineau could grab it. It didn’t work.


Get a foothold in the net! Dewey yelled.


I can’t! Babineau cried.


Then Babineau put his feet on the edge of the raft. Dewey pulled the second mate’s knees up over the edge.


But that way, the mate’s head was underwater.


Dewey was losing him that way, so they stopped. They had struggled in the cold for half an hour. Now, Babineau could only try to hang on. He was going to sleep. The cold water was stealing his energy.


Dewey looked in the raft for something else, anything to help. Was there another ladder? There were canisters. One was marked “one small oar.” Another said “hot catch rain water.” Another said “fishing line.”


Then Dewey looked back. Babineau had drifted away.


One of the other seamen struggled to get into the raft. The other two were in shock and made no effort to get in. They could only cry: “Help me. Help me. Help me.”


Then one by one, they all drifted away.


Dewey was alone in the raft.


He shivered convulsively as he sat in the darkness. When he heard helicopters, he shined his flashlight toward the sound. The chopper did not stop. Dewey was not worried. He was going to make it.


The chopper circled and came back.


A basket was lowered. He saw a picture showing him how to huddle inside. He just fell in. Then he was in the helicopter, door open, freezing, shouting above the noise: “There’s no one else in the raft!”


But when Dewey looked down, he could see a man swimming in the water. It was a Navy diver, James D. McCann.


McCann, in wet suit, snorkel and fins, was finding a lot of dead seamen. But among them, he was finding men alive.


From the first, Kelly had not been a likely candidate for the rank of survivor. He had narrowly escaped the fall of the ship’s huge stack, thanks to an unknown shipmate’s tug on his collar. He never saw who it was.


In his words:


When I turned around there was nobody there. I think we got separated by the seas. And it was about a half an hour, maybe a little bit less, that I swam away from the ship. . . .


Finally, after some time in the water, I came across a life ring, and there were five other people hanging on. . . .


It was the chief engineer (Richard Powers); the third mate, Richard Roberts; one of the ordinary seamen, his first name is Harold – I don’t know his last name; the day man, Joe, I don’t know his last name; and it was the radio operator, (Sparks Lane), and myself.


We were on the life ring.


Everybody was pretty well stunned. We sounded off so we could find out who was there. We sounded off by number and came out with six.


And then it was just talking, giving each other encouragement, that we thought daylight was coming pretty quick. Several times the chief thought we saw a ship in the distance, or saw lights in the distance when we got to the top of a wave.


The only lights I could see around me were the strobe lights of the life rings, the water lights, and I could hear people calling all the time, but I couldn’t see anybody else . . ..


And I don’t know when I started to notice that people weren’t on the life ring.


I noticed that Harold wasn’t there at one time.


And then I turned around and the day man wasn’t there.


Right after that, I called out to Rich Roberts and I asked him how he was doing. He responded that he was okay, that he was cold, he was okay.


I don’t know how long it was on the life ring before I noticed that the only ones there were the chief engineer and the radio operator.


He was stiffening up. He kept saying, “I’m cold. I’m cold. Help me.”


At that point, I noticed that the chief – the chief – when we went into the water, had his spotlight and he had been shining it up into the air all this time.


I noticed that he wasn’t shining it any more. I thought he might have lost it. So I whacked him on the back of his life jacket, and there was no response

from the chief. And as I hit him, his flashlight floated away from him, and I was able to grab that, and use that as my signal.


I never looked at my watch in the water because I was afraid that I would lose my grip on the ring. So I wasn’t concerned with the time element. I kept talking to Sparks. Sparks was the last one on the ring with me.


The helicopters arrived, and it seemed like I could see them passing over me two or three times before they spotted us.


When they lowered the basket, I turned to tell Sparks that the basket was here, and Sparks wasn’t on the life ring anymore.


It was just myself.


Kelly had tried to flash the tankerman’s red light at boats and ships earlier. But he could not aim it. He did not have fingers and toes. That is how it felt. He would shiver for a minute, be still for 10 seconds and then shiver again, repeating the cycle over and over like convulsions.


When he heard the chopper he tried to point the light straight up. He did not even know the Coast Guard diver was near him, helping. The chopper looked so close, almost floating on the crest of the waves. He could reach out and touch it.


Then he was in the basket, heading toward the chopper and he thought:


I should have taken the light. I should have saved Power’s light.


On board the chopper, Dewey and Kelly were freezing. Kelly’s pants were down around his knees. He was sobbing uncontrollably, throwing up water and oil. There were three dead men with them in the helicopter as the crew searched and picked below like a pelican scooping fish.


One corpse had its eyes open. Kelly took a blanket and pulled it over his own eyes to keep from looking at the dead man.


Then the copter crew found a lifeboat. They brought a body up. Kelly yelled to Dewey. “Was that the chief mate?” Dewey could not hear him. Kelly yelled again. “Was that the chief mate?” Finally, Dewey read his lips.


He wasn’t sure. The body was covered with oil. Finally, they could see it was Cusick. But was he alive, or dead? They could not tell.


When he had reached the swamped lifeboat, Cusick put his hand on the gunwale. Only then did he let go of the oar and grab hold with his other hand. He paused, then kicked off his heavy, water-filled rubber boots. His stocking feet found a rail that ran along the underside of the boat.


He did not struggle. He waited, poised for the right moment. Then it came: A wave carried the boat and Cusick up together. Then, when the boat started down – Cusick was still going up – he heaved, shifted his weight and allowed the momentum of the wave to topple him in.


Cusick sat on a thwart of the swamped boat as it floated only inches above the sea. The air was freezing cold.


A wave nearly washed him back overboard, so he lowered himself into the water within the boat and thrashed about to stay warm.


He began to yell: “Lifeboat here! Lifeboat here!”


But no one answered.


So the old chief mate sat in the water and prayed for daylight.


When it came, a Norwegian tanker had also arrived. It was a big one, the Barranger. It pulled alongside the small lifeboat.


Norwegian seamen dropped a Jacob’s ladder down the side and valiantly clambered down to help. They reached for the American. But the waves were too big.


The captain of the Barranger saw the danger clearly: The waves threatened to smash both the tiny lifeboat and Cusick against the steel hull of the ship. So the ship pulled back.


Cusick, realizing why, was relieved. Better this way, he thought. There was a better chance this way.


So the old mate sat in his boat, hanging on now, hanging on, hanging on, . .


Suddenly, the copter whirred overhead. A basket dropped from the sky.


He tumbled in and, as he was being hoisted up, he looked below: The small orange lifeboat grew smaller and smaller.


Then hands were working on him, pressing on him. Dewey and Kelly watched, still wondering: Was he alive? Or dead? The Coast Guardsman asked: What month was it? What month was it?


“February,” Cusick finally coughed. Kelly and Dewey knew there was a third survivor.


A short time later, rescue ships, including the Tropic Sun out of Philadelphia, approached. Crew members spotted men in life jackets, bobbing about on the sea, and messmen exuberantly prepared coffee and soup for them.


But as the ships drew closer, it became clear – the men who were left were dead. Their bodies drifted by the ships in packs, rising and falling with the waves.


Jim Walsh of the Tropic Sun said the dead floated eerily, in relaxed positions. They reclined, their eyes staring, as if they were in their living rooms watching television.


The Marine Electric stayed afloat belly up for several hours. Then, at 37 degrees 51 minutes north, 74 degrees 51 minutes west, it turned and sank.




John Abrams




Eric Bodden


Chief cook


Celestino Gomes




Peter Delatolla




Jose Fernandez


Desk utility


Malcolm Graf




Robert Harrell


Ordinary seaman


Robert Hern


Ordinary seaman


Charlie Johnson


Able-bodied seaman


Edward Matthews


Able-bodied seaman


Richard Morgan




William Mulberry




John O’Connell


Ordinary seaman


Jose Quinones




Anthony Quirk




Thomas Reyes




Raul Ruiz




Norman Sevigny


Able-bodied seaman


David Sheperd




Ricardo Torres


Able-bodied seaman


John Wood


Able-bodied seaman


The Return of the Man-eater


Men’s Journal, January 2003


By Robert Frump



Neville Edwards was having a bad day in the bushveld. The 40-year-old guide was escorting two clients on a safari through South Africa’s Kruger National Park, in the heart of lion country, in July of 2000.  The two very senior corporate French VIPs on the seat next to him were out to see their fellow carnivores, but Edwards hadn’t been able to show them so much as a rodent.


Finally, two hours out, he found a magnificent bull elephant and steered his Land Rover within throwing distance. While the VIPs pointed at the big tusker ambling across the grand vista, Edwards stayed alert.  Elephants made grand game viewing for tourists and the bull was indeed putting on a “show” – flapping his ears and kicking up dirt.  A mock charge could follow and a good trumpeting gets the adrenaline flowing.


But Edwards was a consummate pro, with 20 years in the bush, and he kept the Landie jammed in reverse, with one foot on the depressed clutch, just in case the bull actually charged – as they did indeed sometimes do. Instinctively, he scanned the bush around him, snapping back to the elephant at any sign of motion. It’s a basic truth of the bush that what you’re looking for always comes from where you aren’t looking.


On a slow sweep behind him, he saw a hand rise up from the bush and wave a casual good morning. He snapped back to the elephant, then to the hand. With an odd tremble, it seemed to beckon him forward. He snapped again to the elephant and then warily brought his binoculars back to see what the person wanted.




Most certainly, the hand should not have been there.  Thanks to nine decades of conservation management, Kruger National Park, just slightly smaller than Massachusetts, in the northeast corner of South Africa, hard against the border of Mozambique, had been transformed into “the Eden of Africa.”   Each year, a million visitors came to Kruger to see elephants, zebras, kudos, and herds of lithe, model-thin impala on “self-directed” safaris. But most of all, they came to see lions. There were more than 2,000 of them in the bush, and no human should have been out there on foot.


As he focused his binoculars, a black-backed jackal popped crisply into view.  Then Edwards panned up and saw that the hand was attached to a body that the scavenger now was worrying.  Above, the hand still danced, waving.  Then the jackal changed its grip. The hand and arm dropped and a human head flopped into view and fell, flopped and fell, impossibly relaxed.


There was a brief moment when lucid thoughts crossed Edwards’s mind. A woman’s hand, he thought, as the fingers were slender. Probably a refugee from Mozambique. He’d heard stories of them walking across Kruger and falling prey to lions, but he’d never seen any proof, until now. The poor woman wasn’t killed long ago, as her body was still flexible. However many lions had attacked her, they couldn’t be far away. Probably they had just let the jackal in to clean up.


Then Edwards lost it. The jackal began gulping, as jackals do, gorging all it could in case the lions returned. At the sight, Edwards fumbled for the radio and keyed the mike. He started to yell to base camp in English, “I need help!” – then thought better of it in case the French might understand. They had not seen the body and they didn’t need to. He switched to Zulu: “Ifuna siza! Ifuna siza! “


Then, to the amazement and protest of his clients, he sped away from the only game they would see that day. Edwards just didn’t care. At that moment, on that piece of land, he and the VIP’s were no longer the alpha predators. In the middle of Africa’s greatest feat of conservation, humans had become a prey species.






Always in modern times, for more than 100 years, Mozambicans illegally have crossed the area that is now Kruger.  For food, for family, for a future, they came first to work in the gold mines and on farms in prosperous South Africa. Then in the 1970’s, many more fled the war of liberation from the Portuguese.  Freedom came in 1972, but there followed a brutal 20-year civil war that displaced millions and sent tens of thousands streaming across Kruger to South Africa.  Floods, droughts hastened the exodus.  “Going west to Joni” was the way the refugees put it, to Johannesberg and the economic promise of South Africa.


Crossing into the park never was easy.  Until the end of apartheid in South Africa in the 1990’s, the fence along its border carried a lethal 3,000-volt charge to keep poachers and illegal immigrants at bay.  Always, desperation finds a way, however, and refugees learned to short out the fence or go through gaps cut by poachers.


In the south of the park, refugees walked on the little-traveled roads along the Crocodile River.  In the middle section, they cut right through the bush near the campsite of Satara. And in the north, near Punda Maria, the habit was to follow a series of power lines that snaked across the wilderness, resting by day in remote bush country and walking the lines at night to avoid border patrols.


Some walked west on their own, often carrying muti, a magic totem such as a hyena’s tail that they’d bought from traditional healers. Muti was guaranteed to repel lions, though it was difficult for consumers to collect on the warranty if the totem malfunctioned. Other refugees hired guides, who escorted groups of 20 to 30 at a time across the park. But that method also lacked guarantees. If you became sick, or if you were carrying a baby, or if you were old and couldn’t keep up, you were likely to be left behind.


Soon after the heaviest migrations began in earnest, park officials – rangers and guides and poacher patrols – began to find tattered bits of clothes. Other times they found a shoe, a wallet with Mozambican currency, a lone suitcase, perhaps some blood, and sometimes the human corpse left from a kill.


When a crossing was done successfully, it was done as John Khoza did it. Khoza grew up in a family of herders in a small Mozambique village. His father owned many cattle. Disease – Khoza does not know which – claimed his mother when he was ten, and his father when he was 15. He and his older brother would have been affluent by Mozambique standards, but the cattle passed on to their uncle, not them, and their uncle had little use for his nephews. Khoza would herd all day, and at night there would be only a bowl of cornmeal. Malnourished and futureless, he and two friends decided to do it, to cross “the Kruger.”


Khoza was lucky to know a guide named Fredie. He was luckier still to be a herder, since he’d come into contact with lions and knew never to run away from one. So, at 2 a.m., on a dark July night in 1972, Khoza and his small party found where a wart hog had burrowed under the fence at Kruger’s eastern border. They wriggled under and set out across the southern end of the park. “You do not take food, you only worry about water,” Khoza says. “You do not take a gun or they will arrest you as a poacher. You do not take clothes or worry about what you will wear. You are starving. You move with purpose through the bush. You stay off the roads and away from the helicopters, the rangers on bicycles, the army patrols and the tourists.” When they came upon elephants or dangerous cape buffalo, they moved cautiously and – ever the herdsmen – threw rocks at the animals to move them along.


Then, the first night, the lions found them. “I froze,” Khoza says. “We all did. I faced the lion in front of me, but I knew there were at least two or three to the rear. Always, there are lions to the rear. We did not move. We were absolutely still. Ten minutes passed. Fifteen minutes passed. Then we did not count the time.” Eventually, seeing no obvious vulnerabilities, the lions moved on to easier prey.


This scene was repeated four times that first night. During the day, they hid from view and rested under trees.  The next night, they moved again, and again the lions found them several times during the night.  But the herdsmen stood firm, careful not to trigger an attack. After two days and nights in the park, half-way across it, they turned south to the Crocodile River and swam their way into South Africa. Khoza is now a legal resident and the father of six. He drives a four-wheel-drive truck to and from his job at Izinyoni  Lodge just south of Kruger and is wealthy beyond the means of the average Mozambican. But he no longer walks at night.


Success stories like Khoza’s in the 1970’s were a carrot enticing migration, but it was the stick, not the carrot, that drove the massive waves in the 1980’s and 1990’s.   From 1987 through 1992, when the civil war was at its most brutal, between 250,000 and 500,000 refugees fled to South Africa, most through Kruger. In 2002, ten years after the civil war ended, conditions still drive Mozambicans toward promise and away from some of the worst human conditions on the globe. Mozambicans have an annual per capita income of about $250. They live on average only until age 43.  A million people died in the wars. Hundreds of thousands more fell to starvation and disease. Mozambique is the only country to sport an AK-47 on its national flag. A land mine might also be appropriate, since more than a million of them are scattered throughout the countryside.


It was under those circumstances that Johanna Nkuna and her three daughters set out one day in July 1998 from the small village of Shikwalakwala, located east of Kruger in central Mozambique, and slipped through the fence into Kruger. They planned to walk to Soweto, where an uncle lived. They would rest in remote bush country during the day, while at night following the power lines that snaked across the wilderness.


Johanna and her girls fared well for most of the trip, but in the bush near Punda Maria, a big fenced camp in the north of Kruger, close to the western border of the park and their “exit point,” they heard noises and growls coming from the bush. A pride was hunting. The lions advanced, snarling at the girls, heading instinctively toward the young, testing for vulnerability.


The “stand” you make against a lion is all-important in such situations. Lion experts say that you should never run from a lion, nor should you ever threaten one. But few lion experts are mothers, and none of them were there that night near Punda Maria. Johanna Nkuna charged the lions, yelling and waving her hands, and the pride took her.


The sacrifice gave her children a chance. They juked and scattered, running for their lives in three directions. The two older girls eventually turned east, running the lines back toward home. Eleven-year-old Emelda instinctively ducked into a small hole in a large termite mound. From there, she huddled up for the night, listening to her mother’s screams, the lions’ snarls and growls, and then the more horrible quiet.


The next day, she crept out to find her mother’s mostly eaten corpse. She walked down a road aimlessly, in shock. As a safari vehicle with tourists and a ranger pulled even with her, matching her slow pace, she neither acknowledged them nor fled nor stopped walking. “What are you doing alone in the park?” a ranger asked in the Xitsonga language as they crept along. And slowly the story came out.


No one knows for sure how many refugees make it safely across Kruger as John Khoza did, or how many fall prey to lions like Johanna Nkuna. No records are kept, and no single entity is in charge of keeping count – not the South African or Mozambican governments, not the Kruger police, not the park rangers – and none of them seem anxious to be in charge. Tourism is the No. 1 industry in this part of Africa, and no one wants to scare the customers away. Not that man-eating lions are necessarily bad for business  “People want to know the place is real,” Steve Gibson, a guide and the owner of Esseness Safaris says. “Reports of man-eating lions give the place an authentic feel.”




But as more refugees continue to migrate through Kruger, ominous evidence continues to accumulate. Most recently, in March 2002, a lion killed an illegal Mozambican immigrant just outside Kruger and carried the body through the town of Phalaborwa on a Saturday night. Dr. Willem Gertenbach, the head of all conservation efforts within Kruger, says that only one or two bodies are found each year, but that the number of deaths is almost certainly much higher than that. The torn bits of clothes, shoes and suitcases are found on a regular basis, with no explanation and no bodies. “Some people say, well, perhaps they were scared and dropped these things,” says Albert Machaba the head ranger in Kruger’s Satara area. “But how do you drop clothes that are tattered and torn like that? What refugee would leave their shoes? No, I don’t think that is what is happening.”


What is known is that roughly 4,000 refugees are caught each year by 220 Kruger rangers and about 600 South African army border patrolmen, which posits the following game theory query.


Team A is the rangers and patrolmen- 820 primates with relatively inferior eyesight, hearing, and sense of smell operating in a wilderness that is about 300 miles long and 50 miles wide. They operate during the day, when illegal refugees are in hiding. At night, when the immigrants are on the move, Team A retreats to fenced-in camps.


Team B is the lions – more than 2,000 quadrupeds with highly acute eyesight, hearing, and senses of smell. The night is their home. They are on the hunt when the refugees are on the move. Protein is their quest, and the refugees are the weakest, most vulnerable protein source they encounter.


When Team A catches 4,000 refugees per year, how many will Team B catch? To kill 100 humans per year, the Kruger lions would have to catch only 2.5 percent of what the rangers and patrolmen catch – a figure that Gerrie Camacho, a scientist and lion advocate in the Mpumalanga province near Kruger, agrees is reasonable, if not conservative. Since 1972, that would be 3,000 humans killed and consumed by lions. The probability is that this number is low, that the 820 rangers and soldiers, even with the advantage of jeeps, airplanes, and radios, would not catch 40 times more refugees than the 2,000 lions.


The celebrated Ghosts of Tsavo – two maneless lions that brought a British bridge-building project to a halt for months — were responsible for killing 130 people at the turn of the last century. A more obscure but far deadlier pride in Tanganyika killed 1,500 between 1932 and 1947 – considered the “all-Africa record,” as one writer phrased it. Even without precise statistics, carnage caused in Kruger makes the kills by the lions of Tsavao and the lions of Tanganyika look small, and qualifies “the Eden of Africa” as home to the largest case of man-eating lions in modern history.






The only good thing about being eaten by a lion is that it apparently doesn’t hurt very much. Dr. David Livingstone, an explorer and missionary, was seized in 1844 by a lion and later wrote, “Growling horribly close to my ear, he shook me as a terrier dog does a rat. It produced a sort of dreaminess in which there was no sense of pain, nor feeling of terror, though I was quite conscious of all that was happening. It was like what patients partially under the influence of chloroform describe in that they see the operation but do not feel the knife. This placidity is probably produced in all animals killed by the carniovra; and if so, is a merciful provision of the Creator for lessing the pain of death.”


“That’s absolutely right,” says Gerrie Camacho, a conservationist who is the director of the Mpumalango parks lion project. “You do feel everything. It is as if you have been seized by a vise. Such strength! You know you are powerless against it. You feel your muscle ripping and tearing. You feel your meat separate from the bone. You feel all that, but you do not feel pain or really care. You are in a dream state, not unpleasant at all.” He speaks from experience, and it gives him a unique perspective on exactly what is going on in Kruger.


When Camacho was a young man in the lion business, in July 1988, he and other conservationists were attempting to tranquilize and treat a pregnant lioness that seemed to have an infection. They lured her into a large fenced-in area just outside Kruger, but the pride followed, making it impossible to treat her. One day, the pride left the area, leaving the sick lioness and one young male alone within the fences. Camacho and Johan Vander Walt, a colleague, rushed to the area. Vander Walt parked their Land Rover in front of the entrance to keep the pride from re-entering. Camacho ran to the lioness, thinking he’d simply scare away the young male. Young males are skittish, and when Camacho began yelling and flapping his arms, the lion rushed toward a hole in the fence to rejoin the pride.


Something turned him, though. Perhaps he lost sight of the fence gap. Perhaps it was the Land Rover. His escape seemingly blocked, he wheeled and charged back toward Camacho. Hoping it was a mock charge, Camacho, who is six-feet-four, made his stand. He “looked large,” hooting and waving his arms above his head. But this was no mock charge, and the lion hit Camacho head-on, knocking him backward as if he were a beer can struck by a flying anvil. Fortunately, Camacho was thrown up against a tree and remained standing. Had he gone down, he almost certainly would’ve been killed. The lion had to settle for Camacho’s right calf, which he seized in his teeth while raking Camacho’s upper body with his box-cutter-like claws. When the lion tried to move its grip up for the kill, Camacho began pummeling his eyes with big roundhouse lefts and rights. “It was the only soft spot I could reach,” he says. The lion’s smell – a sweet and powerful odor of urine and defecate – engulfed him.


Vander Walt watched in horror, but was more alarmed when the pride, hearing the sounds of the attack, began streaming toward the hole in the fence. Vander Walt knew that if they got back in, they would make short work of Camacho. Normally, there would be a rifle clipped to the dash of the Land Rover, and Camacho sometimes carried a .375 magnum on his belt. But they had hurried here to seize their chance to isolate the lioness. Both the rifle and Camacho’s revolver were back at the camp. Vander Walt desperately searched the Landie and came up with. . . a tire iron.


He ran toward the fence, waving it at the pride, making as much noise as he could. The lions, confused and stymied, retreated. Vander Walt then charged toward Camacho, yelling and swinging the tire iron wildly. Camacho was still punching the lion frantically. In the end, it was all too much for the young male. The blows to the eyes. The madman with the tire iron. The retreating pride. He let loose of Camacho, lit out for the hole, and it was over.


Camacho received sixty-four stitches to his calf, leg, and arm. After spending several weeks in rehab, he was back in the field searching for lions – but not vengeance. “In no way could that lion be held at fault,” he says. “I was stupid. I caused the attack.” Camacho’s opinions carry a lot of weight in the region, in part because of the scars he bears from the attack, and in part because he’s spent ten years reinstating lions into wild areas of South Africa. He’s a scientist who knows first-hand the dangers of the bush, and he contends that when lions kill humans in Kruger, they are merely doing what comes naturally.


“What you are saying about the lions and refugees is true, but you must not be sensational and call them man-eaters,” he says, “or suggest that they have a taste for human flesh. Man-eaters should be individuals or prides that specialize in hunting humans as prey, and that focus on any humans, even those within the safety of the camps. The lions in Kruger do not set out to kill humans. They are opportunists.”


It is crucial, Camacho says, to understand that the lion is two animals. Man is diurnal, and the tourists who drive through Kruger on safaris see the lion in its passive daytime mode. At night, however, when refugees walk west through Kruger, the lion becomes a fearsome carnivore that walks the bush in highly organized hunting parties looking for protein. “If a large group of vulnerable refugees comes predictably through every night, the lions will see that there is easy prey, and they will kill it, and this will stay in their memory.”


When around lions, “you are always on a thin edge,” Camacho says. But there are two conditions where humans are likely to become lion prey. The first is when humans intrude in the “comfort zone” of the lion. Even a passive day-time tabby will attack if someone in Kruger is foolish enough to leave the Land Rover and stick a camera in its face. Like Hannibal Lechter, lions tend to eat the rude. The second condition is when human behavior “triggers” the lion to attack. These triggers are hardwired into the lion psyche, and like kittens to a dangled string, they respond aggressively to certain signals- crying, running, limping. “I was in a Land Rover one day just a meter away from a very placid lionness when a small child began to cry,” Comacho says. “Instantly she was alert. Lions are experts in spotting weakness. This is how they pick their prey from a herd. They are constantly scanning for vulnerability. So at night, if you are a refugee, the lions will size you up. If you are too small, you are vulnerable. If you are overweight, you are vulnerable. If you limp, you are vulnerable. If you are alone, you are vulnerable. If you are any of these things, then you may trigger a lion attack. It is the same to the lions as if you are a squealing pig. ”


Camacho first saw evidence of how lion attacks can be triggered in Kruger in July of 1998. He was in the bush with Greg Nelson, a documentary filmmaker who was producing a series called Free of Fear, a camera crew, and two American veterinarian trainees. They had lured lions with bait and hyena calls, but had tranquilized only two of them, even though their methods had always attracted an entire pride. So where were the other lions?


Someone on Nelson’s crew said he heard what sounded like a human cry a few hundred yards away. There, in the middle of the road, they found the fed-upon corpse of a refugee. It was clear from the tracks what had happened. The refugee was wearing an athletic shoe with a brand name raised on the sole. He’d been taking casual steps, imprinting “Fila” in the dust of the road. Going west to Joni, slowly but surely. A bit farther on, the tracks of a large lioness emerge from the bush as if merging from an entrance ramp. The two sets of prints proceed unchanged for a while, the “Fila” imprints spaced leisurely, the lion’s pug marks following behind. Judging from her gait, she appeared to be curious, open to opportunity, but not charging.


Then the athletic shoe tracks break into a run – he must have heard her growl or cough behind him – and her tracks show the trigger point: Instantly, the slow walk becomes a short, bounding run, then a leap. There is an area that clearly suggests a scuffle. Both the man’s shoes are stripped and thrown to the side. Then he regains his feet and races, barefoot, for his life. The lion tracks – now with claws extended – follow for twenty feet, and then there is a great deal of blood. The corpse is little more than a rib cage and a smear of red, its teeth exposed through missing lips in a ghoulish rictus.


Shocked and repulsed by what they found, the men pulled the Land Rover over the body to keep jackals and hyenas away from it. Between them, they had hundreds of nights sleeping in the open bush, and at that moment they were sincerely afraid of lions for the first time. Camacho was so shocked that he staggered away, walking back through the bush to the tranquilized lions. He stumbled on the first one, literally stepping on her, then changed direction and bumped into the other, which was recovering, eyeing him warily. Camacho recovered his senses and walked back to the group assembled around the corpse. With too much gear to return home, they had to sleep in the bush. They circled the Land Rovers, pioneer style, and Camacho crawled under his, where he slept fitfully, dreaming of lions and smiling corpses.


Still, reflecting on the incident, Camacho says, “Yet again, this was not the fault of the lion. The lion did not seek the refugee. The refugee walked into her turf and triggered the attack. You cannot call her a man-eater in the classic sense of the word.”






Whatever its causes, very little has been done about the problem. There have been no anti-lion uprisings, and on a continent where more than 20 million people are infected with AIDS, where genocide by machete cuts down hundreds of thousands, where malaria claims hundreds of thousands more in South Africa alone, public officials aren’t preoccupied with the lions in Kruger. In part, this is because everyone understands that the lions are the rock stars of eco-tourism. Moreover, some South Africans view the immigrants as border jumpers who steal jobs, and the lions as a sort of biological razor wire, a way to literally put teeth into the border-patrol efforts. And then there are the lion politics. Should members of a protected species be killed when doing what comes naturally? “Some people say, well, the lions were here first, and man comes in and creates a problem, so why must the animal suffer?” Dr. Gertenbach says. “That’s a difficult statement to make. There are human rights.”


And sometimes, lions do pay a price. In 1997, a pride of five was darted and killed in Kruger’s northern section. “They had become too aggressive,” says Dr.Gertenbach. “We could tell they were man eaters. In one stomach, we found a wallet with Mozambique currency.” Albert Machaba says, “We would’ve been their next targets. Even though we were fully armed, when we were in the bush, they were watching us and waiting.”


The shooting of lions has none of the glory it carried during the days of the Great White Hunter. These are not brave sorties into the bush after fleeing demons. They are executions. The act is anathema to the rangers, who are sworn to protect wildlife. Three Mozambican brothers were attacked in the park in May 1998. Two came to Machaba and begged him to help the third, as they could not drive the lioness off by themselves. From 500 meters, backed by several rangers armed with rifles, Machaba could see the lioness had killed the man and was feeding on him. He sighted down the scope of his .458 magnum, enough gun to bring down an elephant. Heart shots and head shots are the most humane and lethal, and Machaba put the cross-hairs on the head. He squeezed, the big gun bucked, and the lion fell dead across its prey. “It was a sad day,” Machaba says. “Sad for the man. Sad for the lion. But when we catch them red-handed, we must kill them. There is no looking away from that.”


Yet the laws of lion justice are loosely written and even more loosely enforced. “When we know a lion has become a man-eater, we must shoot it,” Dr.Gertenbach says. “But if it isn’t absolutely clear, we give it the benefit of the doubt. Besides, we are not equipped to solve this problem. We’re already short-handed in performing our primary duties – patrolling for poachers and snares, and maintaining the park for the animals and the tourists.”


Which is not to say Dr. Gertenbach hasn’t tried. In 1998, he suggested that buses be set up on the border and visas issued. But the South African Home Office balked. He also supported a barter system with refugees along Kruger’s border with Mozambique. The refugees  provided crafts, which the park sold in gift shops. They were given food in return, and agreed to stay in their home country. But the program ran afoul of South African customs policy and was tangential to the problem at best.


Machaba has taken a different tack. When he arrived in the Satara area in 1998, he began crossing the border each month to visit the local officials in Mozambique.  “You must educate the refugees,” he tells them. “Travel in large groups. Use guides. Do not set fires to keep warm.” His education program may be working. In the central Satara area, Machaba hasn’t found a corpse since arriving in 1998. But problems in Mozambique persist. A flood in 2000. A horrible drought this year. “If the drought continues, I expect there will be even more refugees,” Machaba says. And as long as there are refugees, there will be man-eating lions in Kruger. “Even if conditions in Mozambique get better, there are many families and tribes people who are split by the park,” he says. “They will always cross.”






The only legal way to step one rung down on the food chain is on a sanctioned “night drive” through Kruger in a big safari vehicle with staggered stadium seats that can accommodate 20 tourists at a time. Instructions are brief: Stay inside the open vehicle. Do not break the profile of the truck and show your human self. No noise. Do not talk. If you do, we are told, the game will run. Follow the rules, and lions generally ignore vehicles, even inches away.


Powerful, hand-held million-candlepower spot lights bleach the near roadside. The blackness of the African night swallows them a few feet into the bush, but they can scour the near terrain, catching the eyes of all the creatures. A set of green eyes. Kudo. A rock that moves. Elephant. Yellow eyes. A serval cat. We peer into the bush, looking for the alchemy of lions formed from the grass, just as they were in daytime.


When we see them, however, it is not in the bush, but on the road. In ordered single file, a hunting platoon of 11 lions move languidly down the road. These are not your daytime lions. They are panther leo nocturnal. Lithe and powerful, they swagger, all balls and confidence, like an urban gang patrolling its turf.


We pull even with them and are among them. Motor drives whir. Camera strobes freeze the cats. They stare at wheel level but ignore us, an arm’s length up and out from them. What happens then perhaps is seen through a lens of too much information, too much listening to Gerrie Camacho and his talk about comfort zones and trigger points. Yet we see what we see and hear what we hear.


The coiled potential for violence begins to undo the passengers. There are lions everywhere, a few feet away. Human invulnerability is stripped. First, it is a woman in the back. In a tremulous voice, she says in a South African English accent, “Driver! Please. Turn back. I am afraid they will jump in the car!”


An older man, joins in. “Yes! Yes! Turn back please! They are too close!”


Then, on the brink of tears, rattled badly by the adults, a young girl of about eight says in the shakiest of voices, “Let’s do go home. Please! I am very afraid. They are going to jump onto us.”


There is no response from the driver, but the lioness nearest us twitches and instantly looks up. She has been angling toward the vehicle. Perhaps she truly sees it for the first time, and that is the cause of her alertness. Or perhaps she has heard the trigger of the child. Her face looks both piqued and confused. She looks up and backs onto the downward slope of the road, her back legs feeling for footing, coiling under her. The spotlights shine in her vision, and within the beams she hears more fear. Her hindward legs bend more as she backs away. Footing? Or a leap? It’s impossible to tell. But there’s no doubt that she is searching.


More of the adults are chorusing now, asking the driver to leave. Some stalwarts half-shout, “No. Stay!” and blaze away with their cameras. All of them are breaking the rules. The girl sniffles and begins to sob. The lioness again twitches in response. Her face is intent, fearless.


“There, there,” the girl’s mother says. “They’re just as scared of you as you are of them, my dear. There is nothing to worry about.”


There is no indication that this is true. The lioness is stone-faced and stalwart, still interested, ripped with coils of muscle. But the woman’s voice seems eternally invulnerable and it calms us all. As the driver begins to pull the vehicle away, the lioness backpedals down the shoulder of the road. There is an embarrassed silence, but a moment later, it’s as if the panic never even occurred, as if we did not briefly feel like prey. We ascend confidently back to the top of the food chain and accept the myth that there was never anything to worry about. Yes, the lions were scared of us.  It is our muti.


As we drive away, the platoon troops down the road again in single file. Then they do something I recognize from my pheasant-hunting days back home in rural Illinois. As kids, we would go out in groups, proud that we were trusted with shotguns. We would find a field of standing corn. Walking single-file along one side, we’d space ourselves out to cover the most ground, and with a signal or a nod, we’d enter the corn to begin driving the game before us.


The lions move to the bush alongside the road, and at some silent signal, they space themselves. Some look from side to side to gauge the span, while others trot ahead to spread out. When they are comfortable with the intervals, when they are spread out to cover the ground, they move as one and lope into the bush. They are on the hunt now, looking for easy prey, heading east toward Mozambique.



Authors Who Worked at The Philadelphia Inquirer. 

What a legacy.  Courtesy of Jim intended for the Inquirer and Daily News Alumni Network (but my blog is the only way to include the entire list.)

So proud to have been a part of this crew.

— Bob Frump Sept. 21.

NOTE:  If you have corrections or additions, please add them in comments, and I will forward on to Jim for consideration.

The Philadelphia Daily News deserves its own list with some huge books via Pete Dexter, Laker-Ruderman.

Compiled by Jim Remsen

(Jim Remsen says: The big ad in the NYTimes Book Section for Mark Bowden’s new ‘Hue 1968’ got me thinking about our newsroom colleagues past and present who’ve written books. That got me wondering how many there actually are, which led me to compile this gang listing over the past few days. It’s essentially a cut-and-paste job from Amazon. No doubt some worthy authors are still omitted—because they wrote under pseudonyms, because their work isn’t listed on Amazon or, most likely, because I simply forgot or overlooked them. Feel free to add or correct (as Linda Hasert already has done, above), with my apologies. I did not go back to the pre-Roberts era so Joe McGinniss, for instance, is not included. Nor did I include Daily News folks and thus Dexter, Laker-Ruderman,  etc., are not listed. I begin the compilation with works that inarguably hit the big time (led to movies, major sales, major awards, major impact). After the first 10-15 entries, the list becomes a grab-bag with no judgment or ranking implied. Please read it with that in mind. If someone wants to alphabetize the list to avoid hard feelings, be my guest.)


MARK BOWDENHue 1968: A Turning Point of the American War in Vietnam; Black Hawk Down: A Story of Modern War; Guests of the Ayatollah: The Iran Hostage Crisis: The First Battle in America’s War with Militant Islam; Killing Pablo: The Hunt for the World’s Greatest Outlaw; The Finish: The Killing of Osama Bin Laden; Worm: The First Digital World War; Bringing the Heat; The Three Battles of Wanat: And Other True Stories; Doctor Dealer: The Rise and Fall of an All-American Boy and His Multimillion-Dollar Cocaine Empire; Road Work: Among Tyrants, Beasts, Heroes, and Rogues

JENNIFER WEINER Good in Bed; Fly Away Home; The Next Best Thing; Good Men; Then Came You; The Littlest Bigfoot; Certain Girls; Goodnight Nobody; All Fall Down; Who Do You Love; Hungry Heart: Adventures in Life, Love, and Writing

GENE ROBERTS & HANK KLIBANOFFThe Race Beat: The Press, the Civil Rights Struggle, and the Awakening of a Nation

DON BARLETT & JIM STEELEAmerica: What Went Wrong?; America: Who Stole the Dream? ; The Betrayal of the American Dream; Forevermore, Nuclear Waste in America; Howard Hughes – His Life and Madness; Critical Condition How Health Care in America Became Big Business–and Bad Medicine; The Great American Tax Dodge: How Spiraling Fraud and Avoidance Are Killing Fairness, Destroying the Income Tax, and Costing You

TIM WEINERLegacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA; Enemies: A History of the FBI; One Man Against the World: The Tragedy of Richard Nixon; Blank Check: The Pentagon’s Black Budget; Betrayal:: The Story of Aldrich Ames, an American Spy

BUZZ BISSINGERFriday Night Lights: A Town, A Team, And A Dream; A Prayer for the City; Father’s Day: A Journey into the Mind and Heart of My Extraordinary Son; After Friday Night Lights: When the Games Ended, Real Life Began. An Unlikely Love Story; Three Nights in August: Strategy, Heartbreak, and Joy Inside the Mind of a Manager; LeBron’s Dream Team: How Four Friends and I Brought a Championship Home

STEVE LOPEZThe Soloist: A Lost Dream, an Unlikely Friendship, and the Redemptive Power of Music; Third and Indiana; The Sunday Macaroni Club; Land of Giants: Where No Good Deed Goes Unpunished ; Dreams and Schemes: My Decade of Fun in the Sun

DAVID CAY JOHNSTON – The Making of Donald Trump; Free Lunch: How the Wealthiest Americans Enrich Themselves at Government Expense (and Stick You with the Bill); Perfectly Legal: The Covert Campaign to Rig Our Tax System to Benefit the Super Rich–and Cheat Everybody Else; Divided: The Perils of Our Growing Inequality; The Fine Print: How Big Companies Use “Plain English” to Rob You Blind

PEGGY ANDERSONNurse; Children’s Hospital; The Daughters

JOHN GROGANMarley & Me: Life and Love with the World’s Worst Dog ; Marley: A Dog Like No Other; The Longest Trip Home: A Memoir; Marley & Me: Life and Love with the World’s Worst Dog; (and 8 Marley early readers)

AMANDA BENNETTThe Cost of Hope: A Memoir; The Death of the Organization Man; The Quiet Room: A Journey Out of the Torment of Madness; The Man Who Stayed Behind; In Memoriam: A Practical Guide to Planning a Memorial Service

DAN BIDDLE & MURRAY DUBINTasting Freedom: Octavius Catto and the Battle for Equality in Civil War America

MURRAY DUBINSouth Philadelphia: Mummers, Memories, and the Melrose Diner; The Official Book of Wallyball

GENE FOREMANThe Ethical Journalist: Making Responsible Decisions in the Digital Age

MIKE SOKOLOVEDrama High: The Incredible True Story of a Brilliant Teacher, a Struggling Town, and the Magic of Theater; Hustle: The Myth, Life, and Lies of Pete Rose; Warrior Girls: Protecting Our Daughters Against the Injury Epidemic in Women’s Sports; The Ticket Out: Darryl Strawberry and the Boys of Crenshaw

THOMAS HINEPopuluxe; I Want That!: How We All Became Shoppers; The Total Package: The Secret History and Hidden Meanings of Boxes, Bottles, Cans, and Other Persuasive Containers; The Rise and Fall of the American Teenager; Facing Tomorrow: What the Future Has Been, What the Future Can Be; The Eames Lounge Chair: An Icon of Modern Design; The Great Funk: Styles of the Shaggy, Sexy, Shameless 1970s

ROD NORDLANDThe Lovers: Afghanistan’s Romeo and Juliet, the True Story of How They Defied Their Families and Escaped an Honor Killing

SUSAN Q. STRANAHANSusquehanna, River of Dreams

DAVID ZUCCHINO – Myth of the Welfare Queen: A Pulitzer Prize-Winning Journalist’s Portrait of Women on the Line; Thunder Run: The Armored Strike to Capture Baghdad

RICHARD BEN CRAMERWhat It Takes: The Way to the White House

JANE EISNERTaking Back the Vote: Getting American Youth Involved in Our Democracy; Who Are We Now? Interpreting the Pew Study on Jewish Identity in America Today

DONALD DRAKEMedical School: The dramatic true story of how four years turned a class of raw students into qualified physicians

MARIAN UHLMAN & DONALD DRAKE – Hard Choices: Health Care at What Cost?

DOREEN CARVAJALThe Forgetting River: A Modern Tale of Survival, Identity, and the Inquisition

JENNIFER LINShanghai Faithful: Betrayal and Forgiveness in a Chinese Christian Family; Sole Sisters: Stories of Women and Running

HANK KLIBANOFF – Assassins, Eccentrics, Politicians, and Other Persons of Interest: Fifty Pieces from the Road

MICHAEL BAMBERGERMen in Green; To the Linksland: A Golfing Adventure; This Golfing Life; Wonderland: A Year in the Life of an American High School; The Green Road Home: Adventures and Misadventures as a Caddie on the PGA Tour; Every Shot I Take

STEVEN REA – Hollywood Rides a Bike: Cycling with the Stars; Hollywood Café: Coffee with the Stars

GAIUTRA BAHADURCoolie Woman: The Odyssey of Indenture

BOB ZAUSNERDanger Above: A Tragic Death, An Epic Courtroom Battle; Dying to Have a Baby: A True Story; Bad Brake: Ford Trucks, Deadly When Parked; Two Boys, Divided by Fortune, United by Tragedy: A True Story of the Pursuit of Justice

DOUG CAMPBELL – The Sea’s Bitter Harvest: Thirteen Deadly Days on the North Atlantic; Eight Survived: The Harrowing Story Of The USS Flier And The Only Downed World War Ii Submariners To Survive And Evade Capture

TOM INFIELDFifty Years After the War: The People Who Were There Recall the Major Events of World War II

PETER BINZEN – The Wreck of the Penn Central; The Cop Who Would Be King : The Honorable Frank Rizzo; Whitetown, U. S. A.; Richardson Dilworth: Last of the Bare Knuckled Aristocrats; Nearly Everybody Read It: Snapshots of the Philadelphia Bulletin

STEVE TWOMEYCountdown to Pearl Harbor: The Twelve Days to the Attack

VERNON LOEBAll In: The Education of General David Petraeus; Good Hunting: An American Spymaster’s Story; King’s Counsel: A Memoir of War, Espionage, and Diplomacy in the Middle East

BOB FERNANDEZThe Chocolate Trust: Deception, Indenture and Secrets at the $12 Billion Milton Hershey School

AL LUBRANOLimbo: Blue-Collar Roots, White-Collar Dreams

ARLENE MORGANThe Authentic Voice: The Best Reporting on Race and Ethnicity

LOU URENECKThe Great Fire: One American’s Mission to Rescue Victims of the 20th Century’s First Genocide; Smyrna, September 1922: The American Mission to Rescue Victims of the 20th Century’s First Genocide; Backcast: Fatherhood, Fly-fishing, and a River Journey Through the Heart of Alaska; Cabin: Two Brothers, a Dream, and Five Acres in Maine

LISA TRACY – Objects of Our Affection: Uncovering My Family’s Past, One Chair, Pistol, and Pickle Fork at a Time; The Gradual Vegetarian: The Step-by-Step Way to Start Eating the Right Stuff Today

TOM MOON – 1,000 Recordings to Hear Before You Die

DOTTY BROWNBoathouse Row: Waves of Change in the Birthplace of American Rowing

MIKE VITEZ – The Road Back; Great Americans: Stories of Resilience and Joy in Everyday Life; Final Choices: Seeking the Good Death

TOM GRALISH & MIKE VITEZRocky Stories: Tales of Love, Hope, and Happiness at America’s Most Famous Steps

GIL GAULBillion-Dollar Ball: A Journey Through the Big-Money Culture of College Football; Giant Steps: The Story of One Boy’s Struggle to Walk

NEILL BOROWSKI & GIL GAUL Free Ride: The Tax-Exempt Economy

TONY WOOD & GIL GAULCrisis on the Coast: The Risky Development of America’s Shores

GEORGE ANASTASIABlood and Honor: Inside the Scarfo Mob–The Mafia’s Most Violent Family; The Last Gangster; The Goodfella Tapes; Gotti’s Rules: The Story of John Alite, Junior Gotti, and the Demise of the American Mafia; Mob Files: Mobsters, Molls and Murder; Mob Father: The Story of a Wife and a Son Caught in the Web of the Mafia; The Summer Wind : Thomas Capano and the Murder of Anne Marie Fahey; Philadelphia True Noir: Kingpins, Hustles and Homicides

GEORGE ANASTASIA & GLEN MACNOW – The Ultimate Book of Gangster Movies: Featuring the 100 Greatest Gangster Films of All Time

RALPH CIPRIANOThe Hit Man: A True Story of Murder, Redemption and the Melrose Diner; Courtroom Cowboy: The Life of Legal Trailblazer Jim Beasley; Garagista A Home Wine Making Journal

MARY WALTONA Woman’s Crusade: Alice Paul and the Battle for the Ballot; Car: A Drama of the American Workplace; The Deming Management Method; Deming Management at Work

JOE DiSTEFANOComcasted: How Ralph and Brian Roberts Took Over America’s TV, One Deal at a Time

KAREN E. QUINONES MILLERAn Angry-Ass Black Woman; Hittin’ It Out the Park; Satin Doll; Ida B.; Harlem Godfather: The Rap on my Husband, Ellsworth “Bumpy” Johnson

FRANK FITZPATRICKThe Lion In Autumn: A Season with Joe Paterno and Penn State Football; The Perfect Game: How Villanova’s Shocking 1985 Upset of Mighty Georgetown Changed the Landscape of College Hoops Forever; Pride of the Lions: The Biography of Joe Paterno; And the Walls Came Tumbling Down: The Basketball Game That Changed American Sports; You Can’t Lose ‘Em All: The Year the Phillies Finally Won the World Series

TANYA BARRIENTOSFrontera Street; Family Resemblance

SHARON WOHLMUTHMothers and Daughters; Sisters; Best Friends; A Day in the Life of the American Woman: How We See Ourselves

CRAIG STOCKInvesting During Retirement

FEN MONTAIGNE – Broken Empire : After the Fall of the USSR; Reeling In Russia: An American Angler In Russia; The First Directorate: My 32 Years in Intelligence and Espionage Against the West; Surviving Galeras; Medicine by Design: The Practice and Promise of Biomedical Engineering; Fraser’s Penguins: A Journey to the Future in Antarctica

CARRIE RICKEYDoris Day Biography; They Went Thataway: Redefining Film Genres; Batiste Madalena : Poster Paintings for the Movies; The 1984 Show

JULIA CASSBlack in Selma: The Uncommon Life of J.L. Chestnut, Jr.

AKWELI PARKERAutomatic Emails: Polite Yet Potent Communications for Getting Stuff Done at Work, at Home, and in Your Community; 41 1/4 Creative Content Ideas: Ingeniously Clever Small Business Marketing Moves for Capturing More Clicks, Clients, and Cash; 31 Ways to Green Your Business (And Boost Your Bottom Line): A Practical Guide to Substantial Savings through Sustainable Business Practices

PAT RACCIO HUGHES – Five 4ths of July; The Breaker Boys; Guerrilla Season; Seeing the Elephant: A Story of the Civil War; Open Ice

SAL PAOLANTONIOFrank Rizzo: The Last Big Man in Big City America; The Paolantonio Report: The Most Overrated and Underrated Teams, Players, Coaches, and Moments in NFL History; How Football Explains America

GWEN FLORIOMontana; Reservations; Dakota; Disgraced

BILL LYONDeadlines and Overtimes: Collected Writings on Sports and Life; When the Clock Runs Out: 20 NFL Greats Share Their Stories of Hardship and Triumph

KEVIN FERRIS – Vets and Pets: Wounded Warriors and the Animals That Help Them Heal; Unbreakable Bonds: The Mighty Moms and Wounded Warriors of Walter Reed

JOANNE McLAUGHLINNever Before Noon; Peppina’s Sweetheart; Grass and Granite

CARLIN ROMANOAmerica the Philosophical

CLARK DELEONPennsylvania Curiosities; America’s First Zoostory and Other Philadelphia Stories: 125 Years at the Philadelphia Zoo

JOHN TIMPANE – Poetry For Dummies; Writing Worth Reading: The Critical Process; Writing Worth Reading: A Practical Guide; It Could Be Verse: Anybody’s Guide to Poetry

SERGIO BUSTOSMiami’s Criminal Past: Uncovered

CHRIS SATULLO – Crime and Punishment: Is Justice Being Served?; A Christmas Quartet

SUSAN FITZGERALDLetting Go with Love and Confidence: Raising Responsible, Resilient, Self-Sufficient Teens in the 21st Century; The Everything College Survival Book: All You Need to Get the Most out of College Life; Who Moved My Laundry?: A day-by-day guide to your first year of college life

SUSAN FITZGERALD, MARK JAFFE & DONALD DRAKEHard Choices: Health Care at What Cost?

MARK JAFFE – The Gilded Dinosaur: The Fossil War Between E.D. Cope and O.C. Marsh and the Rise of American Science; And No Birds Sing: The Story of an Ecological Disaster in a Tropical Paradise

NATALIE POMPILIO – Walking Philadelphia: 30 Tours Exploring Art, Architecture, History, and Little-Known Gems

MEL GREENBERGHoops Heaven: Commemorating the 50th Anniversary of the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame

JIM REMSENThe Intermarriage Handbook: A Guide for Christians and Jews; Visions of Teaoga; Embattled Freedom: Chronicle of a Fugitive Slave Haven in the Wary North

INGA SAFFRONCaviar: The Strange History and Uncertain Future of the World’s Most Coveted Delicacy

JOHN HILFERTYMoonlight in Vermont; The Mad River Valley; Skiing in the Mad River Valley; Growing Up in World War II

MARILYN MARTERDining-In Philadelphia

REGINA SCHRAMBLINGSquash: A Country Garden Cookbook

BOB FRUMP – Two Tankers Down: The Greatest Small-Boat Rescue In U.S. Coast Guard History; Until the Sea Shall Free Them: Life, Death, and Survival in the Merchant Marine; I Cover the Waterfront: Non-Fiction Articles, 1980-2008, Maritime Writer Robert R. Frump; The Man-Eaters of Eden: Life and Death in Kruger National Park; The Spirit Lions: Darting Man-eaters in the Selous

JEFF GAMMAGEChina Ghosts: My Daughter’s Journey to America, My Passage to Fatherhood

ED COLIMORE Eyewitness Reports: The Inquirer’s Live Coverage of the American Civil War; The Philadelphia Inquirer’s Guide to Historic Philadelphia

STEPHAN SALISBURYMohamed’s Ghosts: An American Story of Love and Fear in the Homeland

DENISE COWIEThe Communication Clinic: 99 Proven Cures for the Most Common Business Mistakes

DON GROFFBest Beach Vacations: The Mid-Atlantic from New York to Washington Dc (Frommer’s Best Beach Vacations East Coast from New York to Washington DC)

HOWARD GOODMANDisoriented: Two Strange Years in China as Unexpected Expats

MONICA YANT KINNEYPhiladelphia Murals & Stories They Tell

MIKE MISSANELLI – The Perfect Season: How Penn State Came to Stop a Hurricane and Win a National Football Championship; The Transaction: Surviving Professional Baseball Through 16 Years and 36 Waives, Recalls, Trades, and Releases

CRAIG LABANSavoring Philadelphia; The Philadelphia Inquirer Restaurant Guide

NATE GORENSTEINTommy Gun Winter: Jewish Gangsters, a Preacher’s Daughter, and the Trial That Shocked 1930s Boston

FAYE FLAMThe Score: The Science of the Male Sex Drive

MIKE SIELSKI – Fading Echoes: A True Story of Rivalry and Brotherhood from the Football Field to the Fields of Honor

BOB SHEASLEYHome to Roost: A Backyard Farmer Chases Chickens Through the Ages

AVERY ROME – Millennium Philadelphia

DAVE CALDWELL – New York Times Speed Show: How NASCAR Won the Heart of America

MICHAEL  E. RUANE – Sniper: Inside the Hunt for the Killers Who Terrorized the Nation; 1787: inventing America: A day-by-day account of the Constitutional Convention


Linda Hasert adds these names:


MAYA RAOWild Frontier: Chasing the American Dream in the Bakken Oil Fields (due out April 2018)

JOE LOGAN – Playing A Round: The Guide to Philadelphia-Area Golf Courses

KEN BOOKMANWhile the Pasta Cooks: 100 Sauces So Easy You Can Prepare the Sauce in the Time It Takes to Cook the Pasta; 2500 Recipes: Everyday to Extraordinary; One-Pot Chocolate Desserts: 50 Recipes for Making Chocolate Desserts from Scratch Using a Pot, A Spoon, and a Pan; One Pot Cakes: 60 Recipes for Cakes from Scratch Using a Pot, a Spoon, and a Pan; One-Pot Cookies: 60 Recipes for Making Cookies from Scratch Using a Pot, a Spoon, and a Pan; Dinner’s Ready: Turn a Single Meal Into a Week of Dinners  

MATT KATZAmerican Governor: Chris Christie’s Bridge to Redemption

ROSE CIOTTACruel Games: A Brilliant Professor, A Loving Mother, A Brutal Murder

DESMOND RYANHelix; Deadlines


BILL ECENBARGERKids for Cash: Two Judges, Thousands of Children, and a $2.6 Million Kickback Scheme; Pennsylvania Stories–Well Told; Walkin’ the Line: A Journey from Past to Present Along the Mason-Dixon;  Making Ideas Matter: My Life as a Policy Entrepreneur; Glory by the Wayside: The Old Churches of Hawaii

BARBARA DEMICK – Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea; Logavina Street: Life and Death in a Sarajevo Neighborhood; Besieged: Life Under Fire on a Sarajevo Street; Eat the Buddha (due out March 2018)

MIKE CAPUZZOThe Murder Room: In Which Three of the Greatest Detectives Use Forensic Science to Solve the World’s Most Perplexing Cold Cases; Close to Shore: A True Story of Terror in an Age of Innocence; Wild Things

GLEN MACNOW –  The Great Book of Philadelphia Sports Lists; Sports Great Allen Iverson; Sports Great Kobe Bryant; Sports Great Troy Aikman; Sports Great Charles Barkley; Sports Great Tiger Woods; Sports Great Kevin Garnett; Sports Great Alex Rodriguez; Sports Great Chris Webber; Sports Great Jeff Gordon; Cal Ripken, Jr.: Hall of Fame Baseball Superstar; Deion Sanders: Hall of Fame Football Superstar; Shaquille O’Neal: Star Center; David Robinson Star Center; Ken Griffey, Jr., Star Outfielder; The Philadelphia Flyers Hockey Team; The Philadelphia 76ers Basketball Team

ANTHONY GARGANO – NFL Unplugged: The Brutal, Brilliant World of Professional Football; A Sunday Pilgrimage: Six Days, Several Prayers and the Super Bowl; War in the Trenches: Blood, Pain, and Profanity: Inside Life in the NFL

ANTHONY GARGANO & GLEN MACNOW The Great Philadelphia Fan Book

ANGELO CATALDI & GLEN MACNOW – The Great Philadelphia Sports Debate

RAY DIDINGERThe New Eagles Encyclopedia; One Last Read: The Collected Works of the World’s Slowest Sportswriter; On God’s Squad: The Story of Norm Evans; Wil the Thrill: The Untold Story of Wilbert Montgomery; The Super Bowl: Celebrating a Quarter-Century of America’s Greatest Game; Football America: Celebrating Our National Passion; Pittsburgh Steelers; The Professionals: Portraits of NFL Stars by America’s Most Prominent Illustrators

RAY DIDINGER & GLEN MACNOWThe Ultimate Book of Sports Movies: Featuring the 100 Greatest Sports Films of All Time

SAM CARCHIDI – Standing Tall: The Kevin Everett Story; If These Walls Could Talk: Philadelphia Flyers; Miracle in the Making: The Adam Taliaferro Story;

SAM CARCHIDI & RAY DIDINGERBill Campbell: The Voice of Philadelphia Sports

KATE FAGAN What Made Maddy Run: The Secret Struggles and Tragic Death of an All-American Teen; The Reappearing Act: Coming Out as Gay on a College Basketball Team Led by Born-Again Christians

C.S. MANEGOLDTen Hills Farm: The Forgotten History of Slavery in the North; In Glory’s Shadow: Shannon Faulkner, The Citadel, and a Changing America

DAVID HILTBRANDDeader Than Disco, Killer Solo, Dying to Be Famous

DAVID TUCKERLate for Work; Days When Nothing Happens

LUCINDA FLEESONWaking Up in Eden: In Pursuit of an Impassioned Life on an Imperiled Island




“Crossing the Bar” by Tennyson

Richard Wickboldt, one brother among four who sailed in the American merchant marine, died recently  in Michigan. His brother,  George, 24, died on the Marine Electric. Another Wickboldt son, Steven, was killed in 1982 in an explosion aboard the ship Golden Dolphin.
After George’s death, his parents, having lost two sons to the sea and having two sons still at sea,  asked Richard to leave the merchant marine, which he did, but as noted below answered an emergency call from SUNY in 2014 to man a training cruise.

My sincere sympathies to the Wickboldt family.

No obituary information is yet available, but here is Bill Halloran’s remembrance.

This from Bill Halloran
Class of 1982,

I have sad news to pass along. I received correspondence from the Wickboldt family that Richard Wickboldt, SUNY Maritime class of 1976, had suddenly passed away last weekend. Rich lived in Ann Arbor, MI with his wife and daughter. The family was in the process of planning for a service to be conducted in Ann Arbor MI this weekend. The family indicated that they will eventually arrange for another service in New York sometime in the future and they will let me know the details at that time. That is all I have to report at this time.

I recently went out to dinner with Richard, the night before his 40th class of 1976 reunion, on Thursday September 29th. All was well, he was busy with work, planning for his daughter’s college next year, and caring for his parents in NH with frequent visits.

My Memories of Richard Wickboldt
My name is William J. Halloran Jr.. I was George Wickboldt’s classmate at SUNY Maritime College from 1978-1982. I first met Richard Wickboldt way back in 1979 during our MUG SUNY Maritime College training cruise when he was the “much feared” Watch Engineer. I distinctly remember being in the lower engine room on watch with George.  Both of us were in our boiler coveralls, drenched in sweat, face to face, wavering from the intense heat and the roll of the ship. I asked George if the rumor was true……was “that guy”…. the Watch Engineer his brother?? George just stood there with a sort of a half smile & half grin and said “yeah”. For some reason, I then felt a bit safer minus the fear but still somewhat “on guard”. Richard had the reputation of being “the Sgt. Stryker type” of the engine room (as played by John Wayne – Sands of Iwo Jima). Richard was flunking some of the upper class men for their watch grades on cruise. Watch Engineer Wickboldt news stories among the cadets would spread like wild fire daily on the ship.

After a very long period of time, we crossed paths again, as shipmates for three months during the SUNY Maritime College Summer training cruise in 2014. On a very short notice (few days till departure) we both answered an emergency call from the school to fill MT slots on the ships billet. We reunited in the officers mess upon reporting on board for duty. We worked together training the cadets- Richard was an Engineering Training Instructor & I was the Watch Engineer. We were task masters of the engineering cadets keeping in step with the traditions of the school as we had known them to be. That was our reference point, plain & simple. The irony was that the modern day SUNY Maritime was not what it was back in our day, so we were in shock just as much as the cadets were from us. There were many twists and turns making the cruise very interesting, challenging and rewarding for the both of us. We both got along well like brothers who never were separated. Our minds thought alike in many aspects. Connected without the cord. For jokes, laughs, etc…everything. Rich’s mind was as sharp as ever pertaining to all things engine room. We shared together many sea stories, life experiences, opinions, we learned from each other……and from the cadets. We also met many different alumni, officers and ships staff whom added to the great training endeavor.

Rich enjoyed very much being out to sea again. It was definitely his calling. That life style fit him well…..and he had missed it so much. His sea going career (1976-1983) occurred at the end of a great era for shipping-out in a much different world from the present day.

I’m glad I answered the telephone on the day I got the call from Conrad Youngren and the push from my wife “to go” on the 2014 training cruise. Initially I had replied no. Since the cruise; we had our lil’ reunions, kept in touch on the phone and exchanged email. We texted often.

In retrospect, the greatest gift for me is – I now know what the experience would have been like to have had an older brother by being Rich Wickboldt’s shipmate for the last two and a half years. And I will miss him as such.

See pages 5 & 7

(I had hoped this would happen and was figuring out how to introduce the families.  They beat me to it.)

(The daughter of Ray Steele, a seaman rescued from the Pendleton, and the daughter of Bernie Webber, the rescuer, met more than 60 years after the 1952 rescue.)


This week my husband, Joe and I made a Bucket List Trip to Chatham Cape Cod!
We were treated to a personal tour of Coast Guard Station, Lighthouse, beach and everything in Chatham. It was magical for us. Through the Coast Guard we met a wonderful gentleman who is active in the restoration and maintenance of the CG36500, who introduced us to no other than Patty Hamilton, Bernie Webber’s Daughter!! A once in a lifetime meeting that we both will cherish forever. We actually got to board the 36500! I sat where my Daddy sat 64 yrs ago after being rescued!
It was magical! Totally unplanned and worked out to be surreal! For all of us!

Renee  Steele Pellegrino


This is Patty Webber Hamilton,(left) and Renee Steele Pellegrino,(right) celebrating our meeting. Her Daddy saved my Daddy. We will be friends forever!DaughtersKids

(Author’s note:  Members of the Steele family contacted me after reading my book, “Two Tankers Down,” which recounts the wreck of the Fort Mercer and Pendleton off Cape Cod in 1952.  The Steele family story is one I would have loved to have told to Bernie when he still lived.)

Of the 32 men rescued from the SS Pendleton, for sure one was a father.

Perhaps it played out this way for all 32 who were plucked up by Bernie Webber and his crew that night off Cape Cod in February 1952.  I’d like to think so.

But what is certain in this case and many other rescues performed by the Coast Guard and other search and rescue ops worldwide is this:

You often don’t just rescue one person.  Often, indirectly, you rescue families.  You don’t save just one person. You may save a whole generation. And the next.

But as I said, in this case, they saved a father — a guy named Ray.

Here’s what happened in February 1952.

Raymond Guy Steele was 25 years old when he climbed down the ladder of the sinking SS Pendleton and was plucked from the sea and certain death by Webber and his crew aboard the CG 36500.  Ray

He was the sixth of nine children, raised in East St. Louis, in a one bedroom house by a family of Pentecostal farmers forced off the land in Southern Illinois into the city to earn a living.

His brother, Roy, was killed in the Battle of the Bulge.  Another brother, Russell, joined the merchant marine — though statistically, that was more dangerous than Army infantry.  Ray followed those footsteps and when he was 18 became a merchant mariner as the war wound down.

He was a good looking kid and saw the world in the booming post-war years. “I’ve been everywhere, sometimes twice,” he would say later.

“Wow!  The whole world was opened,” Marie, his wife, would write. “He could go anywhere, see everything, do anything, and he did!

And in case some shore-leave brawl pops into your head, that’s not what Ray considered fun.

“He always liked to end up in New York City and visit all the jazz clubs on 52nd Street. He had a life-long love of jazz…”

And these were not jazz for the chumps clubs.  He hung at Kelley’s Stables. There,  a new bee bop sound emerged with advanced harmonies and altered chords. Thelonious Monk and Miles Davis were there but Ray came to hear the Hawk — the great saxophonist Coleman Hawkins.

So he was not your ordinary able bodied seaman — if there is such a thing as an ordinary able bodied seaman.  He was, it is fair to say, a handsome fellow.  Look at pictures today and a teenager would say, “Your grandad was hot!” Ray Hot Shot

But he was also quiet, sometimes even shy. He thought about meaning.  If ever he had a son, what would he name him?

In 1952, the top boy baby name were James, Robert, John, Michael, David.

But Ray particularly liked Coleman Hawkins — so much the thought formed in Ray’s mind: 

Coleman would be a great name for a son if ever he was to have one.  

“Coleman” was not among the top ten baby names of 1952, nor the top 50, nor the top one hundred.  Not a lot of white merchant mariners were naming their sons after African American pioneers of the bebop sound, but that, as they would say now, was just how he rolled.

Somewhere in there on leave, he returned home to East St. Louis, just in time to have a friend of the family introduce him to Marie, a lovely young woman and freshly minted high school graduate.  She was flattered that this handsome 23-year-old man of the world asked her out on a date but saw something beyond that in his nature.  He was “between ships” and did not rush “off the beach” back to sea very fast at all.   The two of them were together all that summer.

He was not gone long when Marie got a call from Ray.  Would she meet him where his ship was docked in Baltimore? Would she come right away?

She did and his intent was clear. Deeply in love, the couple hopped a cross-country Greyhound to New Orleans and were married.

busRenee, their first child, was born 18 months later in June 1951.  Ray was making good money shipping out.  He continued.

Ray sailed for seven years after the war, making 61 trips.  He had some sweet gigs in the banana trades, on the “white fleet,” to South and Central America and back.

And there was plenty to do more than bananas.  America was exporting, importing, trading with a world being rebuilt.  The country throbbed with an industrial hum that ran on energy from oil and gas carried in tankers.

So it was a routine thing in February 1952 when in Louisiana he stepped on board the SS Pendleton, a T-2 tanker built during World War II to win the war, for a voyage north to New England.  The ships were made hurriedly but won the war for America, supplying Great Britain and our armies and navies with the fuel needed to defeat the bad guys.

The problem was, they kept sailing.  Inside the steel was a high amount of sulfur which at low temperatures made the metal behave more like a crystal.  The problem was known but was said to be managed by huge metal straps wound round the hull.

Off Chatham in February 1952, those straps did not hold.  Two T-2 tankers, the SS Fort Mercer and the SS Pendleton, split in half.  The Coast Guard station in Chatham scrambled its small boats to rescue the crew as cutters swept toward the rescue from miles away. Pendleton_Half_Ship_2

Ray and the crew of the Pendleton maintained their cool.  They were in the stern half of the Pendleton — still upright and somewhat navigable.  The poor folks in the bow had been swept away and were just gone.

The Pendleton mess boiled up eggs for the men and they held them in their pockets — both as food and as make-shift hand warmers.  It’s not improbable that Ray heard “Hawk” Hawkin’s riff on “Body and Soul” cross through his mind as he pondered his fate.

From the rail of the broken ship, the odds seemed very bad for Ray to be fathering any sons or daughters, whatever he might name them. All those dreams ended here.  Any rescue attempt through these seas would be a suicide run.

Then, through 60-foot waves, with no compass, no radar, no guidance from this earth, Bernie Webber and the CG 36500 came from nowhere on an impossible mission that was — impossibly — accomplished.


CHATHAM, Mass. (May 15)–The original crew of CG 36500 sets sail again 50 years later in commemoration of the anniversary of the tanker Pendleton rescue off the coast of Chatham, Mass., in February 1952. The Pendleton split in two during a fierce storm boasting 60-foot seas and hurricane force winds. All but one of the 33 crewmen onboard the Pendleton were saved by the crew of 36500. USCG photo by PA3 Amy Thomas

The men filed down the ladder and all but one were saved.  Webber and the crew brought them into Chatham, where the townspeople gave them comfort, food and dry clothing.  Webber collapsed in a bed and as he slept the crew members, Ray included, sneaked into his room and emptied saltwater-wet dollar bills from their wallets onto the dresser.  Pendleton_Relief_sm

There were awards of course.  Medals. Bernie was a hero.  And from my hours talking with him, I know for sure he knew that he and the crew did something good.  But it was truly overshadowed in his mind — and the minds of the others — by the one guy they lost.

This was no false humility and it was not to be argued with. (I tried.) There’s no giving comfort to a rescuer regarding those who were lost.  They have their own math, count their own sums. 

But you can sure show the lives of those who were saved — and I would  have loved it if Bernie were alive now so I could show him what he gave to Ray, his family and the world.

So Bernie, in the reverse format  of “It’s a Wonderful Life,” George Bailey style, here’s what would NOT have happened had you not made that trip, but did because you did.

Ray stopped shipping out after the Pendleton.  He returned home to his young daughter and into the arms of Marie.

In March, just a few weeks after the rescue, she learned she was pregnant.

In December, Ray and Marie had a child, a son.  And they named him Coleman of course.

Ray found land work.  They returned to Illinois to be around family.  Eventually, they moved to the river town of Alton.  Quiet and introspective personally, professionally Ray was a natural salesman.  He sold ads for a radio station first, moved to insurance and then to autos.

The couple had two more children, Mark in May of 1955 and Laura in June 1955.Kids

Outside the job, “Ray was shy and didn’t socialize much,” Marie wrote me. “We had his big family to visit with.  It was all he needed. At home he was full of jokes, stories — and music! … music everywhere.”

Coleman looked just like his dad, but it was Mark who had the musical gene. He played bass in local bands for years.

And of course, the kids grew up.

Marie writes:

“Renee had Tony; Coleman had Carrie and Nathan; Mark had Damon, Spencer and Ryan; and Laura had Amanda and Chad.

“Now we are having Great Grand Children, Damon has Mason and in April Chad will have Ben…


“We are truly Blessed, Ray would have adored them…”25th anniversary

“Ray developed Parkinson’s Disease in 1996, no known cause, but the doctors were interested in the fact that he sailed so many ‘Banana Boats that filled the holds with pesticides…”

“Ray passed away 10/15/2006-8 weeks to the day that he fell and broke his hip-1 week after his 79th birthday.”

Which, given his life expectancy in February 1952 , is what you would call a right good long run.

The generations continue.


“The 5 oldest Grand children, Carrie,Tony,Amanda,Chad and Damon have all graduated from College and the girls have their Masters,  Carrie in Art , and Amanda in Social Work. All are ‘gainfully employed,’ what more could you ask for?

“Thank you again for writing ‘2 Tankers Down’ it has brought back so many memories to share with the next generation.”

Ahh, thank you Marie and Ray and the entire family for sharing this. And showing that rescuers, often rescue more than one person.

And happy Father’s Day Bernie and Ray.

And to all Coast Guard rescuers everywhere of all genders and nationalities.

You do good.  Far beyond what you see first hand.  Or could ever imagine.

For years and years, through the people you save, and through their people, you do good.


Below are notes and pictures from the family



Coleman and family


movie poster

Hi, here’s my short bio about myself:)

I am 32 years old and live in St. Louis, Missouri. I have my Masters in Social Work and work for the state of Illinois. I am passionate about my work and am one of the fortunate ones who enjoys their job everyday! I am extremely social, love trying new restaurants and going to new fun spots in the city. I love traveling and keep myself pretty busy with an active social life.

I loved your book, Two Tankers Down, as well as the movie, The Finest Hours. I grew up spending a lot of time at my grandparents house, and spending a lot of time with Gramps, that’s what his grandkids called him. I had heard the story about his shipwreck, but too be perfectly honest, as a child I thought it was a, “tall tale” that gramps had embellished to make a good story. I mean how can a tanker break in half, stay afloat, and the crew steered it??? That was the most amazing part to me about this story, the unbeliveablenuss and what a brave man my grandfather was. In the years where he spent watching all of us, he didn’t have any desire to travel or at sometimes really leave the house. He would always say,” I’ve been everywhere, some places twice, I want to stay home and be with my family.” At the time I couldn’t begin to understand what he meant, but I knew that we were the most important thing to him, and that was really all that mattered. There are a million great things I could say about gramps; he was funny, kind, mild mannered, and loving, but above all he had integrity, compassion, and a love for knowledge and those are things I’ve always strived to posses as well. Thank you for your research into the Pendleton, and making my grandfather live for eternity in your writings!

Amanda Kraner

Hello Robert,

My name is Chad Kraner and I am Ray’s grandson. My mother is Laura Steele Kraner and I am 31 years old. I was very excited to hear the news the Disney was making a movie about the Pendleton. It was a story all of us grandkids loved to hear my Grandpa tell. My Grandfather was an extremely kind man and had a great sense of humor. I can remember sitting on his front porch watching cars go by and trying to guess which direction the next car would come from. Every time we would come to visit he would give us a dollar before we left and it just meant the world to me. We had so many good times playing wiffle ball in the back yard or watching Notre Dame football games. I’m smiling now thinking about all of the memories with Gramps and I miss him a lot. I know he would have loved reading your book and reading it to the next generation of Steeles to tell them the story of the SS Pendleton.


The most significant “reveal” at the US Coast Guard Marine Board of Investigation into the sinking of the El Faro and the deaths of all 33 aboard her is simply this:

There are no “parties of interest” truly critical of Tote, the owner of the El Faro.

Marine Boards of Investigation are odd that way.  People think of them as courtrooms but in fact, there is no separate prosecution or defense.  The board serves as both, with “parties of interest” attorneys allowed to question witnesses.

At the Marine Electric Marine Board, attorneys representing the officers and survivors passionately criticized Marine Transport Lines, the owner of the old coal collier, which sank in 1983.

There is no similar dynamic here, a fact clearly displayed by the questioning today and one fascinating “reveal.”


We’ll get to that.  First, the new substantive facts?

One former master said the company was reluctant to report holes in the hold of one vessel and there was poor “ground support.”

Moreover the ship was “tender”after cargo containers were added above deck. And the boilers and condensers on the ship were a continuing problem.

Another said he was asked to depart at times with his GM (loading balance) just slightly out of whack.  Others said the ship “was a Cadillac” without vulnerabilities and that the company repaired defects quickly.

Also,  weather officials said they often delayed updates on the path of Hurricane Joaquin out of concern that they would lose credibility with the general public.

In short, the testimony took some small chunks out of Tote, but not big ones. And much of the criticism coming from the former masters seemed less than damning.

Here was the “reveal:”

A scorched earth cross examination of Capt. Jack Hearn, the most critical of the ex-masters, came not from Tote Maritime, but from  William Bennett, the attorney for Teresa Davidson, the widow of Captain Michael Davidson who captained the El Faro on her last voyage.

Bennett confronted Hearn with a letter that suggested he might have been fired because of drug smuggling aboard a Tote vessel.

And while Hearn said he did not resign as a result of the letter, but rather agreed to a negotiated departure, and that his reporting ship damage may also have led to his troubles, the “drug” assertion clouded his testimony, which had been cautiously critical of Tote.

Why would Bennett, representing the interests of the dead captain and his estate, attack Hearn, who was critical of Tote?

Why use a flamethrower on a colleague of Davidson’s who seemed to testify forthrightly and was at best mildly critical of Tote?

Why, as one Twitter post suggested, was Tote silent wile Bennet did the heavy lifting?

There are a number of possible reasons.

While Davidson may seem to be clearly a victim of the sinking, his estate could be liable if he is shown to have acted negligently.  So any suggestion that Davidson abided Tote shortcomings  — as described by Hearn — comes into Bennet’s cross hairs and firing range.

Bennett clearly has stated that the captain received poor weather advice and the accident essentially was caused by inaccurate weather forecasts.

This explanation does a couple of things.  It relieves Davidson’s estate of future liability.  And it also “works” for Tote.

For the company to be proved liable for large sums of money, plaintiffs must show active negligence on the part of the company.  They can choose to stress a number of defenses.  One is that the officers were negligent.  Another might be that the weather forecasts were inaccurate.

Davidson’s widow  already has settled with Tote for a sum of $500,000 and an unknown amount for the pain and suffering of the captain.  So there is no incentive for Bennett to show Tote was negligent, and every reason for him to attack anyone who suggests the captain was negligent by following Tote negligent practices.

Such are the odd natures of Coast Guard Marine Boards.  I am not saying Tote and Bennett are in league.  I am saying their interests are aligned. And I mean no ill will or comment toward Davidson’s widow or Bennett. She must do what is right for her family and defend Davidson’s reputation they way she sees fit.  He is serving his client well and doing his job in fierce defense of Davidson’s reputation and liability.

But the way the cards have flopped, that leaves no one among the “parties of interest” to contest Tote’s story.  There is no adversarial point of view among the “party of interest” attorneys representing ABS, some cargo loaders and shipyards.  All of them are well-served if Tote did everything right and ill-served if Tote deficiencies are revealed.

Quite a change in the hearings I covered at length for the sinking of the SS Poet and the SS Marine Electric.  There, strong advocates were present critical of the company.  In the Marine Electric, there were survivors who testified as well. They had strong incentives to protect their reputations and to lay the ground work for a meaningful civil suit.

In the case of the El Faro, there are no parties of interest critical of the company.  That role rests with the board alone to pose the tough questions.

Those questions may seem hazy after three days of technical testimony, but they are important.

An old ship, twice the age at which most are retired, lost power at sea, flooded from an insecure hatch, and foundered in the path of a powerful hurricane.

Some party needs to be interested in why this happened.  Someone needs to probe to see whether Tote acted admirably, conducted itself properly, simply has a plausible alibi, or in fact is negligent.

Fortunately, the board has skin in this game.  The questions from the NTSB and the Coast Guard are focused and sharp. They seem resolute.


The big question remains:  Will the “survivors” testify?  Will the “black box” at the bottom of the Caribbean be retrieved and the data adequate to show what went on.

In the end, that may best serve all parties of interest, whether all parties are interested or not.