It’s been 40 years since the large bulk carrier SS Marine Electric tragically sank on February 12, 1983, off the Virginia coast, remembers Mr. James Scheffer, Strategic Advisor, NTSB Office of Marine Safety.
On February 12, 1983, Mr. Scheffer was the 34-year-old captain of the 661-foot, 34,700-DWT lube oil tanker Tropic Sun, the first vessel to respond to the Marine Electric’s early morning distress call. As he explains, on the evening of February 11, while on the bridge, Mr Scheffer heard the Ocean City Coast Guard Station side of a VHF radio telephone call to the Marine Electric. The Coast Guard was acknowledging that the Marine Electric had pumps going and was telling the crew to keep the Coast Guard informed if they needed help.
”Meanwhile, the Tropic Sun was rolling, the bow slamming into the swells and seas shipping across the main deck—not unusual conditions for a loaded tanker during a nor’easter. Again and again, water covered the deck; again and again, the deck emerged after each wave. We took that for granted. It was normal in a storm.” he said in article posted on NTSB blog.
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In this article, Mr Scheffer shares his experience when he heard about the accident:
”The Marine Electric was more than 35 miles from us. I changed course and informed the local Coast Guard station that we were responding to the SOS. On our way south to render aid, we saw an unwelcome sight, one that still makes me shake my head: vessels that must have heard the Marine Electric’s SOS sailing in the opposite direction. When we got within a dozen miles of the Marine Electric’s last position, our hearts sank. There was no sign of the bulk carrier on radar. Before daybreak the sea was full of blinking strobe lights, which we recognized as the lights on lifejackets.
I maneuvered the ship in heavy seas to a full stop alongside more than 20 possible survivors floating in the water around 0540. At the time, the water temperature was 39F with an air temp of 34F. They were unresponsive to our calls in the dark/early morning and eerily peaceful, all dressed in winter gear and lifejackets. By all appearances, the Marine Electric‘s open lifeboats had failed to keep them out of the water and alive.
My own vessel carried the same style of open lifeboat.”
On July 18, while the investigation of the sinking was in progress, the NTSB recommended that the Coast Guard require immersion suits be provided for crewmembers, scientific personnel, and industrial workers on vessels that operate in waters below 60°F. The NTSB also made a companion recommendation to Marine Transport Lines, which operated the Marine Electric, as well as to industry groups to recommend their members also provide the suits. The suits became mandatory the following year.
The NTSB determined that the probable cause of the capsizing and sinking of the US bulk carrier Marine Electric was the flooding of several forward compartments as the result of an undetermined structural failure. The lack of thermal protection [survival suits] in the water was one of the factors contributing to the loss of life in the tragedy.
As a result of the Marine Electric’s sinking, the Coast Guard’s inspections improved, and many World War II-era (and older) vessels were scrapped. The Marine Electric tragedy also resulted in the creation of the Coast Guard’s rescue swimmer program, Mr Scheffer explains, highlighting the importance of ensuring safety at sea comes first.
Over the past 26-plus years, I have investigated dozens of accidents and supervised more than 200 accident investigations as Chief of Investigations and Chief of Product Development in the Office of Marine Safety at the NTSB. And since then, we have seen the emergence of technologies and innovations that, combined with survival suits, could have helped prevent such tragedies, such as personal locator beacons.
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