Lessons from 30-year old disaster still saving lives today

Written by Lt. Andrew Murphy.

A rescue swimmer readies for a platform pickup in the early days of the Coast Guard's rescue swimmer program. Photo courtesy of the Coast Guard Aviation Association, The Ancient Order of The Pterodactyl.

A rescue swimmer readies for a platform pickup in the early days of the Coast Guard’s rescue swimmer program. Photo courtesy of the Coast Guard Aviation Association, The Ancient Order of The Pterodactyl.

The Motor Vessel Marine Electric sunk amidst a strong storm off the coast of Virginia on Feb. 12, 1983. Of the crew of 34, only three survived. In response to the sinking, the Coast Guard convened a marine board to investigate the causes surrounding the disaster. The resulting report was released 30 years ago this summer and would significantly alter the safety culture throughout the maritime community.

On July 29, 2014, the Coast Guard’s office of prevention policy was honored to host Mr. Bob Frump, author of “Until the Sea Shall Free Them,” and retired Coast Guard Capt. Pete Lauridsen to speak to Coast Guard marine safety professionals about the impact of the disaster. Frump’s book captures the story of the Marine Electric from its construction to its sinking and resulting investigation. Lauridsen was the head of the marine board investigating the accident.

The Marine Electric, originally a World War II Liberty Ship, was built as a tanker and later converted to a bulk carrier, mostly for grain and coal. It operated for years running from Norfolk, Virginia, to the Brayton Point coal-fired power station in Massachusetts until that fateful day in 1983. On the day of the disaster, the ship was mired in a massive Nor’easter that was producing winds near hurricane strength and seas of 25-35 feet. The first indication that something was wrong came from the watchstander on the bridge; he noticed the ship was feeling “sluggish” and looked like it was down by the bow.

Over the next few hours, it became clear the vessel was taking on water and the order was given to abandon ship. As the crew mustered at the life boats, the Marine Electric capsized and all 34 crew members were thrown into the freezing cold water. After several hours, the Coast Guard was only able to recover three survivors in a rescue helicopter.

Chief Warrant Officer Al Orth, senior marine inspector at Sector Honolulu, conducts an engineering exam. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Juan Schultz.

Chief Warrant Officer Al Orth, senior marine inspector at Sector Honolulu, conducts an engineering exam. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Juan Schultz.

The marine board that was convened eventually concluded the cause of the disaster was deteriorated cargo hatch covers that allowed water to enter the cargo holds and compromise the stability of the ship. Furthermore, the marine board placed blame with the owners of the vessel for “horrible” maintenance of the hatch covers, the Coast Guard for failing to properly enforce regulations and the American Bureau of Shipping for “orienting visits toward protecting the best interests of marine insurance underwriters and not for the enforcement of federal safety statutes and regulations.”

The board also placed some blame on the captain and crew for knowingly allowing an unseaworthy vessel to sail. The marine board reported that within two years prior to the disaster, over 400 patches were applied to the hatch covers. Frump discussed these aspects of the case while painting a detailed picture of the maritime culture at the time of the sinking and how it affected the post disaster investigations and inquiries.

The disaster caused significant change in the maritime community because it was one of the first instances where crew members were forthcoming with information during an investigation.

“The survivors were all instrumental in the making of this reform,” said Frump.

Some of the more significant changes to come from this disaster included the Coast Guard rescue swimmer program. Several other changes included a revamping of the Coast Guard’s marine inspection program and improvements to lifesaving equipment onboard vessels.

“We now have a core capability in the Coast Guard that has really done something to enhance our rescue ability,” said Lauridsen.

The Marine Electric story provides the maritime community with a stark reminder of what can happen when safety culture breaks down and small problems, that eventually become large ones, get overlooked. It is important the Coast Guard, and professional maritime community, remember the lessons that 31 lives onboard the Marine Electric helped us to learn.

“I don’t wish for tragedies, but I do wish to learn from them,” said Frump.

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