SS Marine Electric, a 605-foot bulk carrier, sank on February 12, 1983,
about 30 miles off the coast of Virginia, in 130 feet of water.
Thirty-one of the 34 crew members were killed;
the three survivors endured hours drifting in the frigid waters of the Atlantic.
The wreck resulted in some of the most important maritime reforms
in the second half of the 20th century.
The tragedy tightened inspection standards,
resulted in mandatory survival suits for winter North Atlantic runs,
and helped create the now famous Coast Guard rescue swimmer program.
The Marine Electric began its life as a T2 tanker,
constructed for the United States Merchant Marine.
The ship was originally named the SS Musgrove Mills
and was built in May of 1944 by Sun Shipbuilding and Drydock Company.
She was built as hull number 437 and USMC number 1770.
In 1947, she was sold and became the SS Gulfmills.
A new mid-section for cargo transport was added in November 1962 in a West German shipyard,
at which time she was renamed the Marine Electric.
She was subsequently purchased and managed by Marine Transport Lines (MTL).
However, the Marine Electric was showing its age,
exhibiting corrosion and damage to the hull and other structural components.
The Marine Electric put to sea for her final voyage on February 10,
sailing from Norfolk, Virginia to Somerset, Massachusetts
with a cargo of 24,800 tons of granulated coal.
The ship sailed through a fierce (and ultimately record-breaking) storm that was gathering.
The Marine Electric neared the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay
at about 2:00 a.m. on Thursday, February 10.
She battled 25-foot (7.6-m) waves and winds gusting to more than 55 mph.
The following day, she was contacted by the United States Coast Guard
to turn back to assist a fishing vessel, the Theodora, that was taking on water.
The Theodora eventually recovered and proceeded on its westerly course back to Virginia;
the Marine Electric turned north to resume its original route.
During the course of the investigation into the ship’s sinking,
representatives of MTL theorized that the ship ran aground during her
maneuvering to help the Theodora, fatally damaging the hull.
They contended that it was this grounding
that caused the Marine Electric to sink five hours later.
But Coast Guard investigations, and independent examinations of the wreck,
told a different story:
the Marine Electric left port in an un-seaworthy condition,
with gaping holes in its deck plating and hatch covers.
The hatch covers, in particular, posed a
problem, since without them the cargo hold could fill with water in the
storm and drag the ship under. And it was there that the investigation
took a second, dramatic turn.
Investigators discovered that much of the paperwork
supporting MTL's declarations that the Marine Electric
was seaworthy was faked.
Inspection records showed inspections of the hatch covers
during periods where they'd in fact been removed from the
ship for maintenance; inspections were recorded during periods of time
when the ship wasn't even in port. A representative of the hatch
covers' manufacturer warned MTL in 1982 that their condition posed a
threat to the ship’s seaworthiness. But inspectors never tested them.
And yet, the Marine Electric was repeatedly certified as seaworthy.
Part of the problem was that the Coast Guard delegated
some of its inspection authority to the American Bureau of Shipping.
The ABS is a private, non-profit agency
that developed rules, standards and guidelines for ship's hulls.
In the wake of the Marine Electric tragedy,
questions were raised about how successfully the ABS was
exercising the inspection authority delegated to it, as well as about
whether the Coast Guard even had the authority to delegate that role.
Also there was a conflict of interest in that the inspection fees paid
to the ABS were paid by the ship owners.
In the wake of the Marine Electric investigation,
the Coast Guard dramatically changed their inspection and oversight procedures.
[not true, see below]
The Coast Guard report noted that the ABS, in particular, "cannot be
considered impartial", and described their failure to notice the
critical problems with the ship as negligent. At the same time, the
report noted that "the inexperience of the inspectors who went aboard
the Marine Electric, and their failure to recognize the safety
hazards...raises doubt about the capabilities of the Coast Guard
inspectors to enforce the laws and regulations in a satisfactory
While the Coast Guard commandant did not accept all of the
recommendations of the Marine Board report, inspections tightened and
more than 70 old World War II relics still functioning 40 years after
the war were sent to scrap yards.
Additionally, the Coast Guard required that survival suits be
required on all winter North Atlantic runs.
Later, as a direct result of the casualties on the Marine Electric,
Congress pushed for and the Coast Guard eventually established
the now famous Coast Guard Rescue Swimmer program.
Though the safety of sailors at sea improved in the wake of the Marine Electric
tragedy, those improvements in safety came at the expense of 31 lives,
condemned to a watery grave by poor maintenance and inadequate
Bob Cusick, the Chief Mate of the Marine Electric,
credits The Mary Ellen Carter, a folk song by Canadian Stan Rogers,
with helping him to survive a cold night in the frigid Atlantic waters.
The Marine Transport Lines attorneys attempted to blame Cusick for the
wreck but Coast Guard Captain Dominic Calicchio destroyed that line of
thinking by showing the company officials were aware of the ship
problems. The company was charged with and pleaded guilty to a felony
count of violating safety standards. It paid a small fine. Calicchio,
who bucked the Coast Guard establishment as an aggressive investigator,
retired shortly after the hearing and generally was seen as having
sacrificed his career by exposing the Coast Guard's failures to inspect properly.
He was awarded the Plimsoll Award for maritime safety posthumously
in recognition of his courage and sacrifice.