“The shipwreck that changed the Coast Guard forever” –5th District Public Affairs

The following is a 5th District press release quoted in full.

The shipwreck that changed the Coast Guard forever

This video outlines the Marine Electric shipwreck and the incident’s lasting impact on the Coast Guard.  

Editors’ Note: Click on images to download high resolution version.

Story and artwork by Petty Officer 2nd Class Corinne Zilnicki

When the clock tolled 12 a.m. on Feb. 12, 1983, the 605-foot cargo ship Marine Electric trekked northward 30 miles off Virginia’s Eastern Shore, plowing slowly through the gale-force winds and waves stirred up by a winter storm.

An able-bodied seaman relieved the watch and peered forward, noticing for the first time that the ship’s bow seemed to be riding unusually low in the water. Dense curls of green ocean rushed over the bow, some of

them arching 10 feet over the deck before crashing back down. The crew had been battling 25-foot waves for hours, but until now, the bow had bucked and dipped as normal.

Now it seemed only to dip.

Over the next two hours, the waves intruded with increasing vigor. The entire foredeck was swallowed in 6 feet of water. The main deck was completely awash.

At 2:30 a.m., the ship’s master, Phillip Corl, summoned his chief mate, Robert Cusick, to the bridge and shared his fears: the bow was settling, they were taking on too much water, and the crew was in real trouble.

At 2:51 a.m., the captain made the first radio distress call to the Coast Guard.

“I seem to be taking on water forward,” Corl said. “We need someone to come out and give us some assistance, if possible.”

By the time assistance arrived, the Marine Electric had listed, rolled violently to starboard, and capsized, hurling most of its 34 crew into the 37-degree water. Chaos ensued.

Chief mate Cusick surfaced with a gasp, managed to get his bearings, and spotted a partially-submerged lifeboat nearby. After swimming through towering waves for 30 minutes, he pulled himself into the swamped boat and started thrashing his legs to stay warm.

“All the time I kept looking out and yelling out, ‘lifeboat here,’ just continually yelling out to keep myself going,” the chief mate said. “Then I waited and prayed for daylight to come.”

The Coast Guard had long since dispatched an HH-3F Pelican helicopter crew from Air Station Elizabeth City, North Carolina, and directed the crews of several cutters to the Marine Electric’s position, but the tumultuous weather conditions slowed the rescuers’ progress.

Naval Air Station Oceana had to recall available personnel before launching a helicopter crew, including rescue swimmer Petty Officer 2nd Class James McCann.

At 5:20 a.m., the Coast Guard helicopter crew was the first to arrive on scene. They had expected to find the Marine Electric’s sailors tucked into lifeboats and rafts, but instead, they found a blinking sea of strobe lights, empty lifeboats, and bodies strewn below.

The Navy aircrew arrived and deployed McCann, who tore through the oil-slicked waves, searching for survivors. He managed to recover five unresponsive sailors before hypothermia incapacitated him.

The Coast Guard crew scoured the southern end of the search area and discovered one man, Paul Dewey, alone in a life raft. They dropped the rescue basket so he could clamber inside, then hoisted him into the helicopter. About 30 yards away, they spotted Eugene Kelly, the ship’s third mate, clinging to a life ring, and lowered the basket to retrieve him.

Cusick remained huddled in his lifeboat until the sailors aboard the Berganger, a Norwegian merchant vessel whose crew was helping search the area, sighted him and notified the Coast Guard. The helicopter crew retrieved him in the rescue basket, then took off for Salisbury, Maryland, to bring the three survivors to Peninsula Regional Medical Center.

Meanwhile, more Coast Guard and Navy rescue crews converged on the scene to search for survivors.

Coast Guard Capt. Mont Smith, the operations officer at Air Station Elizabeth City, had piloted a second Pelican helicopter through turbulent headwinds for over an hour in order to reach the site.

He and his crew scanned the debris field below for signs of life. The people they saw were motionless, and it was difficult to determine whether they were simply too hypothermic to move, or deceased. Smith spotted one man and hovered over him, squinting through the whipping snow, trying to decide what to do.

“We all felt helpless,” Smith said. “There was no way to know if the man was dead or alive. We had to try something.”

Petty Officer 2nd Class Greg Pesch, the avionics electrical technician aboard the helicopter, volunteered to go down on the hoist cable. After some deliberation, Smith agreed.

Pesch’s descent in the rescue basket was a harrowing one.

“The whole world seemed to be churning,” Smith said. “I struggled to maintain a smooth hoist, but I know it was erratic.”

Once in the water, Pesch grappled with the basket, trying to hold it steady as he guided the unresponsive man inside. It took several attempts, and then he scrambled into the basket himself and ascended back to the helicopter alongside the victim.

The aircrew spotted another potential survivor, and although Pesch attempted to descend again, the hoist cable spooled back on itself on the drum. The crew was forced to abort their mission and departed for nearby Salisbury Airport, where the man they had pulled from the water was pronounced dead on arrival by paramedics.

Dewey, Kelly and Cusick were the only men pulled from the ocean alive that morning. Their 31 shipmates had either succumbed to hypothermia or drowned.

All told, Coast Guard, Navy, and merchant vessel crews recovered 24 bodies from the scene of the capsizing. Seven were never found. It is likely the ship’s engineers were trapped belowdecks when the vessel capsized.

“Throughout Coast Guard history, the missions of the service have been written in blood,” said Dr. William Thiesen, historian, Coast Guard Atlantic Area. “Such was the case with the loss of the Marine Electric. This tragic event led to stricter marine safety regulations and the establishment of the Coast Guard’s premiere rescue swimmer program.”

While the incident itself served as the catalyst for the major changes to the Coast Guard and maritime community at large, the rigorous efforts of Coast Guard Capt. Domenic Calicchio brought the necessity for such changes into sharper focus.

Calicchio was one of the three marine safety officers charged with investigating the capsizing and sinking of the Marine Electric. The board of inquiry launched their investigation on July 25, 1984, and examined every aspect of the WWII-era cargo ship, its upkeep, the events leading up to its demise, and the Coast Guard’s rescue efforts on that morning.

The investigation revealed that although the Marine Electric had been recently inspected several times by both the American Bureau of Shipping and the Coast Guard, marine inspectors had failed to note several discrepancies or recommend needed repairs. Investigators concluded that the casualty had most likely been caused by inadequate cargo hatches and deck plating, which allowed the crashing waves to flood the vessel’s forward spaces.

Calicchio felt the Coast Guard needed to revamp its marine safety procedures and demand more of maritime companies, but more importantly, that the Coast Guard needed to demand more of itself.

His push for reform resulted in several additions to the Coast Guard’s marine safety protocol, including guidance on hatch cover inspections, and new requirements for enclosed lifeboats and their launching systems, for ships’ owners to provide crews with cold water survival suits, and for flooding alarms to be installed in unmanned spaces on vessels.

The Coast Guard also tightened its inspections of 20-year or older ships, which led to the near-immediate scrapping of 70 similar WWII-era vessels.

“Calicchio embodied the service’s core values of honor, respect, and devotion to duty,” said Thiesen. “He championed marine safety and pursued the truth even at the risk of his career of a Coast Guard officer.”

While the Coast Guard changed many policies to make a safer marine environment after the the sinking of the Marine Electric, the service continues to make improvements on its marine safety program today. By 2025, it is estimated that the demand for waterborne commerce worldwide will more than double. The Coast Guard has published its Maritime Commerce Strategic Outlook in preparation for the increasing demand. 

The Marine Electric shipwreck also served as the genesis of another crucial development: the Coast Guard rescue swimmer program, which was established in 1984. The program’s physical fitness standards, training and organizational structure were developed over a five-year implementation period, and in March of 1985, Air Station Elizabeth City became the first unit to receive rescue swimmers.

The first life was saved two months later.

The Marine Electric, a 605-foot cargo ship, as seen underway before its capsizing and sinking on Feb. 12, 1983. The converted WWII-era ship foundered 30 miles off the coast of Virginia and capsized, throwing most of its 34 crew into 37-degree water, where 31 of them drowned or succumbed to hypothermia. (U.S. Coast Guard photo)

Building a 21st Century Infrastructure for America: Coast Guard Sea, Land, and Air Capabilities–House Subcommittee Hearing

 

The hearing recorded above was held 7 June. The original video was found here. That page also provides the chairman’s opening statement and links to the witnesses’ written statements that are also provided immediately below. The video does not actually start until time 4:30.

Below, you will find my outline of the highlights.

Witness List:

  • Vice Admiral Charles W. Ray, Deputy Commandant for Operations, United States Coast Guard | Written Testimony
  • Vice Admiral Sandra L. Stosz, Deputy Commandant for Mission Support, United States Coast Guard | Written Testimony Ms. Marie A. Mak, Director, Acquisition Sourcing & Management Team, Government Accountability Office | Written Testimony
  • Mr. John Acton, Chairman, Coast Guard Affairs Committee, Navy League of the United States | Written Testimony

The GAO’s written testimony is particularly comprehensive. They report that new assets (NSCs and FRCs) are not meeting planned availability. There have been an unexpected number of engine replacements. In the case of the National Security cutters it appears to me the down time was predictable, a normal part of introducing new ships and availability should return to planned levels as more ships join the fleet. The known defect, that when operating in waters 74 degrees or warmer, the NSCs cannot maintain maximum speed has apparently not been corrected. Max speed must be reduced two to four knots to allow adequate cooling.

Planning Documents:  The Congressional Representatives repeatedly complained that they were not getting an unsensored statement of the Coast Guard’s needs. It appears the Coast Guard is not being allowed provide this information. Rather it appears the GAO is telling the Coast Guard how much they will be getting and told to submit a budget that fits the predetermined amounts. Reportedly the Unfunded priorities list will be provided by the end of June. They also asked for the 5 year and 20 year plan (1h04:30). Coast Guard representatives were repeatedly told the Coast Guard does not say what they really need, that information provided by the Coast Guard is inadequate for the sub-committee to make decisions (1h48m).

It appears that the GAO continues to ask the Coast Guard to plan procurements based on historically low AC&I appropriations that were adequate for a time because of the sporadic character of Coast Guard ship building. They acknowledge that the current budget is not realistic. (43:45)

The Coast Guard is now consistent in requesting $2B in the AC&I annually and a 5% annual increase in its operating budget and that we need 5,000 additional active duty billets and 1,100 addtional reservists. There was a statement from one of the Representatives to the effect, We need you to fight for yourselves (1h50:30). The representatives were informed that the 5 year, 20 year plans and unfunded will be delivered together (1:56)

My opinion: we need a regularly revised Fleet Mix Study. That in turn should feed directly into a 30 year ship and aircraft procurement plan

Webber Class WPCs: The Coast Guard is reportedly pushing WPCs operations down as far as the coast of South America. (50:00) This confirms my earlier speculation that these ships would be operated in what had been WMEC roles. Six cutters for CENTCOM The representative confirmed that they had approved procurement of six Webber class requested by CENTCOM. Apparently their approval was in the form of the Coast Guard reauthorization bill which has still not been made law. Adm. Ray stated that these would be in addition to the 58 currently planned (9:30) and it is not clear how or when they would be funded. Adm Stosz indicated it was not certain six Webber class would be the Coast Guard’s choice in how to fill this requirement and the question required more study. (1h11)(1h41m).

Shore Facilities: Reportedly there is a $1.6B shore construction backlog. $700M shore facilities maintenance backlog. Some infrastructure improvements that directly support new operational platforms.are being accomplished under the platform programs (55:00) The representatives asked, why we have asked for only $10M if the total shore facilities backlog is $2.3B?(1h35)

Icebreakers: The possibility of leasing the commercial icebreaker Aiviq is still being considered. (1h27) The owners have offered a plan for Ice trials and the Coast Guard has said it would be interested in observing. (1h29:50)

Great Lakes Icebreaker: Rep. Lewis brought up icebreaker for Great Lakes.Adm Ray says for now we will address with the existing fleet. (1h00:30) Priority is still Polar Ice Breakers.

eLoran: There seems to be considerable interest in eLoran to deal with GPS vulnerabilities. (1:22) The Navy League representative supported the need. The Re-Authorization Bill directs Secretary of Transportation to initiate E-Loran testing. There was a clear anticipation that the Coast Guard would support implementation.

Coast Guard Health Care: Looks like the Coast Guard heath care records system which reverted to paper now may be able to piggy back on the VA’s conversion to the DOD system. (1h25)/(1h32:30) There is currently a major gap in funding for medical care of CG retirees

A Better Armed Coast Guard: Not that the Representatives were specific, but there was a statement, “We want to weaponize you.” (5:55) I think I heard essentially a second time as well. I’m not sure what that means.

Rising Sea Levels: There was concern expressed regarding rising sea level and how they might impact shore facilities (1h12:20)

WMEC Service Life Extension: The Coast Guard was given money several years ago to plan a service life extension program for 270. The Congress has not seen or heard any result and they questioned, why delay? (1:09) See fig. 4 on page 17 of the GAO’s written testimony

Operating Expenses: Replacement ships are costing more.(26:25)(50:55). This is becoming problematic without an increase in operating budget.

Changing the way we buy ships: Included in the Reauthorization Bill are changes in the way the Coast Guard can fund its shipbuilding, putting us on par with the Navy (5:50)

Cyber: Budget includes 70 additional billets. (19:45)  What are we doing for the ports? (1h13:45)

Inland Tender Fleet: Budget includes $!M to investigate alternatives. (52:30) (1h19)

It is remarkable that there seemed to be no sentiment that the Coast Guard budget should be cut, while there was considerable evidence the Representatives believe the Coast Guard is underfunded.

Sinking of SS Marine Electric – 12 February 1983

An interesting note from Bryant’s Maritime Consulting,

clip_image020“The SS Marine Electric sank during a storm in the North Atlantic on 12 February 1983. Of the 34 crew members on board, three survived, but only after enduring 90 minutes in extremely cold water. The ship had passed all required inspections and surveys, but the subsequent USCG Marine Casualty Report revealed the inspections and surveys to have been perfunctory. As a result, inspection standards were drastically improved. In addition, carriage of survival suits became mandatory for ships on winter routes and the Coast Guard rescue swimmer program was initiated. The circumstances are detailed in Robert Frump’s book “Until the Sea Shall Free Them”.”