On June 1, 1973, the U.S-flag container vessel SEA
WITCH, fully loaded, was being piloted out of New York Harbor, having
departed Howland Hook container terminal at about 2329 local time.
After transiting the Kill Van Kull, the Master turned her to starboard
and began to steady up to pass beneath the Verrazano Bridge. Although
dark, the sky was clear with good visibility. In order to get lined up
properly, and keep well clear of a passing tow, minor course changes
were made. At 0036 on June 2, the SEA WITCH was abeam of the Stapleton
Anchorage, an anchorage typically used by tankers and other vessels
waiting for berths to become available. The ESSO BRUSSELS, loaded with
crude oil, was anchored awaiting docking space at the Bayway refinery.
Most of her crew were asleep. At this time the master of the SEA WITCH
noted a continued swing of the vessel's head to starboard. He
discovered that the 12 degree right rudder applied to the steering gear
could not be removed. The master shifted steering units, and then
shifted to non-follow-up control in an attempt to regain steering.
Neither action had any effect. He ordered the engine full astern, let
go the port anchor, and sounded the general alarm.
At 0042, the SEA WITCH struck the starboard side of
the ESSO BRUSSELS, opening Nos. 7 and 8 starboard cargo tanks and
starting the largest ship-board fire in New York Harbor since the
TEXACO MASSACHUSETTS/ALVA CAPE collision in June of 1966.
Both vessels quickly became engulfed in fire and
thick black smoke. Carried by the ebb tide the vessels, now locked
together, drifted beneath the Verazzano Bridge until they grounded in
The cause of this casualty was the dislocation of a
3/16" x 1" key from a keyway in the control linkage of the steering
gear differential controller installed aboard the SEA WITCH.
Investigators found that this key had moved forward from its slot and
dropped into the jaws of a universal joint. Thus, motion initiated from
the pilothouse steering stand could not be transmitted into the
In this instance, a small, seemingly
insignificant mechanical failure aboard a merchant vessel compounded
itself into a catastrophe which resulted in the loss of one ship and
severe damage to another, and the loss of 16 lives. Using hindsight, it
is easy to say that better connecting linkage would have prevented this
casualty. Furtherand#8212;and perhaps more importantlyand#8212;it could have been
prevented by more attention to mechanical detail.