For nearly 90 minutes Charleston, S.C., pilot Christopher Thornton steered a runaway 70,000-ton containership on a slalom course 20 miles along the Cooper River, making five major turns and shooting under the landmark Arthur Ravenel Jr. Bridge – all at nearly twice the normal speed of ships through the harbor. 

His ship handling maneuvers on June 5 “were nothing short of miraculous and directly saved lives, property, and the marine environment,” according to a Coast Guard Meritorious Public Service Award presented June 26 to Thornton at the Charleston Branch Pilots Association station.

“I am truly honored to present Mr. Thornton with this award for his actions in safely piloting the MSC Michigan VII out of the Charleston Harbor and to sea,” said Rear Adm. Douglas Schofield, commander of the Coast Guard 7th District. "His immediate action to not only continue piloting the ship effectively but also notify all port partners of the of the ship’s mechanical difficulties was vital in protecting the safety of both property and people in and around the greater Charleston waterways." 

The uncontrolled acceleration of the 979’x130’ MSC Michigan VII, a Liberia-flagged vessel built in 2000, raised harrowing memories of the March 26 allision of the containership Dali that brought down the Francis Scott Key Bridge in Baltimore, killing six construction workers on the span and nearly shutting the port for three months.

Thornton’s experience piloting the river and harbor was credited with avoiding an accident, along with close cooperation across the port as word of the emergency spread.

“The Charleston Pilots appreciate and are honored by this recognition,” said W. Crayton Walters III, president of the Charleston Branch Pilots Association. “Our mission requires us to be prepared for the unexpected, and in this case, our pilot and our staff applied our training and experience to avert a potentially very serious situation that would have impacted the community and the port.”

“The quick and astute responses of the Coast Guard, and our local police and fire departments to clear the channels, the beaches, and the bridge ahead of the ship were just as critical to safeguard the public from harm, and we commend each of them for their actions. We are honored to be a part of this community and be of service each and every day." 

The Meritorious Public Service Award, the second-highest public service award the Coast Guard may bestow, is given to recognize those who have accomplished one or more of the following: unusual courage in advancing a Coast Guard mission, substantial contribution to the Coast Guard that produced tangible results and specific individual accomplishments that provide unique benefits to the public. 

According to a Coast Guard narrative, the June 5 incident began when Coast Guard Sector Charleston command center watchstanders received a report at 12:17 p.m. from the Charleston Harbor Pilots dispatch that the MSC Michigan VII was experiencing a malfunction with the systems controlling their propulsion on the Cooper River while outbound from the North Charleston Container Terminal.  

As a precaution, local law enforcement closed vehicle traffic to the Arthur Ravenel Jr. Bridge and Fort Moultrie Beach was evacuated. The bridge reopened once the vessel safely passed underneath.  

Coast Guard response boats and other government agency partners launched numerous assets on the water and the shore to assist with alerting the public and clearing vessel traffic in the ship channel.  

The vessel safely transited out of the Charleston Harbor and anchored 8.5 miles offshore

“I would like to thank our South Carolina state and local Charleston partners for their prompt response and assistance in clearing vessel traffic in the ship channel and halting vehicle traffic on the Ravenel Bridge,” said Cmdr. Randy Preston, Coast Guard Sector Charleston deputy commander, after the emergency passed. “I also want to recognize the Charleston Harbor Pilots for their exceptional coordination and the pilot's efforts in recognizing the adverse situation and steering the ship through the harbor to open water without major incident. This was truly a team effort.”

There were reports of damage from the ship’s wake, and two recreational boaters were reportedly injured and were assisted by local EMS personnel before being transported to a nearby hospital.