Author: Marine Electric Sinking in 1983 Sparked Safety Reforms

This Feb. 12 will mark the 20th anniversary of one of the most tragic yet significant days both in the history of the modern U.S. Merchant Marine and annals of the former National Maritime Union (NMU). On that ill-fated date in 1983, 31 crewmen aboard the Marine Electric—21 of whom were members of the NMU—paid the ultimate sacrifice when their vessel capsized and sank in frigid waters off the Virginia coast. Only three of the vessel’s 34 crew members escaped with their lives. Drowning resulting from hypothermia was determined to be the cause of death for all who perished. Then a 39-year-old vessel, the Marine Electric was loaded with 27,000 tons of coal. Departing from Norfolk, Va., the ship was en route to the New England Power Plant at Brayton Point, Mass. when it encountered heavy seas, rolled over and was swallowed up by the Atlantic Ocean about 30 miles east of Chincoteague, Va. “The deaths of the 31 officers and crew of the Marine Electric helped produce some of the most important maritime reforms in the twentieth century,” said Robert R. Frump, author of “Until the Sea Shall Free Them,” a book about the Marine Electric tragedy. “More than 70 old rustbuckets were scrapped, survival suits were required, finally, in cold waters, and the Coast Guard created the rescue swimmer program—all because of the Marine Electric.” The Coast Guard later concluded that the Marine Electric was a poorly maintained ship with bad hatches and holes in its hull, according to Frump. The “jumboized” World War II T-2 tanker was nearly 40 years old at the time of the catastrophe. The survivors of the wreck included NMU member Paul Dewey, an able seaman; Chief Mate Bob Cusick and Third Mate Gene Kelley, both members of the Masters, Mates & Pilots (MM&P). All three men spent hours awaiting rescue in the waters while their shipmates died about them, according to Frump. NMU members who perished during the disaster were: Bosun Peter Delatolla, ABs Charlie Johnson, Edward Matthews, Norman Sevigny, Ricardo Torres and John Wood; Ordinary Seamen Robert Harrell, Robert Hern and John O’Connell, Deck Utility Jose Fernandez, Utilities John Abrams, Celestino Gomes, Thomas Reyes and David Sheperd; Enginemen Malcolm Graf, William Mulberry and Anthony Quirk; Wipers Richard Morgan and Paul Ruiz; Chief Cook Eric Bodden and Steward/Baker Jose Quinones. In addition to the NMU members above, the dead included Captain Philip Corl, Second Mate Clayton Babieau and Third Mate Richard Roberts, all members of the MM&P; Chief Engineer Richard Powers, First Assistant Engineer Michael Price, Second Assistant Engineer Howard Scott, Third Assistant Engineers Charles Giddens and Steve Browning and Engine Cadet George Wickboldt, all members of the Engineers Benevolent Association; and Radio Officer Albion Lane of the Radio Operators Union. Frump’s book chronicles the epic battle of the three who cheated death—surviving the wreck in the first place, spending hours in the sea, and then seeing that justice was done in the case. Details and order information about the book are available HERE The Marine Electric was built in 1944. It was converted from a tanker to a collier in 1962 along with the Marine Sulphur Queen and the Marine Floridian. Like the Marine Electric, the Sulphur Queen and the Floridian also were befallen with sour luck. The Sulphur Queen disappeared mysteriously in February 1963 with all hands in the Gulf of Mexico while under way from Texas to Norfolk and carrying a load of molten sulphur. The Marine Floridian, also a collier, caused $9.7 million in damage when it struck the Benjamin Harrison Bridge in Hopewell, Va. in February 1977. Fortunately, there were no injuries.

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