Another disaster, and reforms, 35 years after Marine Electric

Tuesday marked the 35th anniversary of the sinking of the 605’ bulk carrier Marine Electric, which capsized and sank with the loss of 31 lives in a winter storm off Virginia.

The subsequent Coast Guard investigation in 1984 found major shortcomings in how its ship inspectors and the American Bureau of Shipping examined vessels. Among other findings, the investigation determined the Marine Electric’s deck plates and hatch covers were simply so rotted that the storm’s 25’ waves poured straight into the hull.

Only three of the crew survived, and Coast Guard aircrews lowered rescue baskets to make rescues, nearly losing one of their own in a harrowing recovery.

The Marine Electric disaster led to creation of the Coast Guard’s training program for rescue swimmers, who drop in to pluck storm-tossed shipwreck survivors and rooftop hurricane victims. The investigative report ushered in a wave of marine safety reforms.

Yet, still the cycle repeats.

Three years after the Oct. 1, 2015 sinking of the 790’ ro/ro containership El Faro, Congress ordered up a new raft of reforms based on findings from the Coast Guard and National Transportation Safety Board.

As in the World War II-era Marine Electric, investigators suspected corrosion was a culprit – in the case of the 1970s-vintage El Faro, steel wastage in ventilator shafts that went undetected by ABS and Coast Guard examiners.

The 2018 law calls for new emergency sensors and distress signaling technology are to be developed, including high-water alarms, bridge monitoring of hull and deck hatches and openings, and redesigned voyage data recorders that can float free in a sinking and carry emergency position indication radio beacons (EPIRBs).

Finally, the law closes a loophole to require enclosed lifeboats on U.S. flag bluewater vessels like the El Faro, instead of the open boats it carried. That such an allowance was made for obsolete survival craft – grandfathered in for older ships – seemed an astonishing, almost ludicrous fact to anyone unfamiliar with the industry. And why would it not?

It seems the obvious can stare us in the face endlessly, and somehow never provoke action. Our columnist Joel Milton recently noted this in the case of the NTSB report on the sinking of the towboat Savage Ingenuity.

Investigators found the towboat experienced rapid downflooding in part because engine room doors had been left open. Almost in passing, their analysis noted that doors are often left open on the boats to dump out heat that otherwise overwhelms ventilation and air conditioning in the crew spaces.

But dealing with that issue was not in the safety board’s recommendations.

“Somehow boats continue to be designed and built paying no attention to this problem,” writes Milton.

I thought of this last night, after finding a stack of old news stories about the series of East Coast commercial fishing accidents in early 1999 that sank sea clamming vessels and killed 10 fishermen.

That led the Coast Guard to convene its Fishing Vessel Safety Task Force with industry advisors. Their report led to new safety equipment and training requirements, including mandatory drills so fishermen can practice getting into a survival suit and launching life rafts.

Some of the Coast Guard officers I talked to when working on those stories had another idea. It resulted in ‘Consequences,’ a long-running column in our sister publication National Fisherman that was a lessons-learned report on fishing accidents, and how to avoid them.

The overwhelming reaction I remember reading the column every month: “I never thought of that.”

About the author

Kirk Moore

Associate Editor Kirk Moore was a reporter for the Asbury Park Press for over 30 years before joining WorkBoat in 2015. He wrote several award-winning stories on marine, environmental, coastal and military issues that helped drive federal and state government policy changes. He has also been a field editor for WorkBoat’s sister publication, National Fisherman, for almost 25 years. Moore was awarded the Online News Association 2011 Knight Award for Public Service for the “Barnegat Bay Under Stress,” 2010 series that led to the New Jersey state government’s restoration plan. He lives in West Creek, N.J.

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