It is a maritime tragedy of such proportion that you might mistake it for something straight out of the
19th Century. A massive ship breaking into pieces, almost an entire crew lost within plain sight of rescuers, and all unfolding only about 30 miles off shore. It didn’t happen in the 1800s, though. It happened in 1983. And it happened right off the coast of Virginia’s Eastern Shore.
This shipwreck horror did begin with those all too familiar elements of disaster at sea; Mariners and their vessel caught in a massive winter Nor’Easter. A well built, sturdy vessel being torn to pieces by horrendous winds and massive waves. The crew, so close to shore, filled with hope and expectation of survival.
The ship was called Marine Electric, a 605 foot bulk carrier, and she was making what the crew of 34 men would call a “milk-run.” A normal, run of the mill passage to Brayton Point, Massachusetts, hauling 25,000 tons of coal. When they left Norfolk that freezing, February night, no one expected that their short, ill-fated voyage would change the course of maritime history.
The Nor’Easter into which they sail proves as violent and unpredictable as any. The weather bureau would end up calling the gale the worst East Coast storm in four decades. What began as 30 knot winds, turns into 40 knots. What began as 15 foot seas, turns into 20 foot seas. And then it got worse. The gale intensifies to winds over 60 knots. The waves became as large as 40 feet.
The seasoned Captain knows they are in trouble. With the carrier taking on water, Marine Electric makes a distress call to the USCG at around 0400 on Saturday, February 12. A helicopter is immediately dispatched from Air Station Elizabeth City in North Carolina.
When the chopper arrives on site just east of Chincoteague, the cargo ship is already capsized and breaking up. The rescuers can see the 34 men scattered about the wreck-site, struggling for their lives in the frozen hell of a 39-degree ocean. While hovering in 60 knot winds, the Coast Guard crew attempts the harrowing rescue.
The drill in 1983 was to hover above and lower the rescue basket to a survivor. A technique developed and ritualized shortly after World War II. Fighting the swells, the winds, the rotor-wash, and every fury nature can hurl, you need to climb into the basket.
And so LT Scott Olin flies into position above the first crewman, lowering the life-saving rack of metal. A scene of utter hopelessness unfolds. The shipmates have been in the water too long. Their frozen limbs no longer respond to their conscious, desperate will to climb into the basket. The chopper crew can only watch. As they move from one crewman to another, the irrevocable, demoralizing scene is replayed as if in some macabre loop. The basket is lowered, and the mariner can make no physical effort to reach for it.
LT Olin radios for a Navy helicopter and a rescue swimmer. Navy swimmers had already been put in place to rescue downed pilots, but were never at the ready to rescue civilians. It takes some time for the USN to get a crew together. When the Navy helicopter arrives just past 0600, Petty Officer James McCann leaps into the freezing 40-foot waves. Swimming beyond his own point of exhaustion, he tries to get men into the basket. He would later receive the Navy and Marine Corps Medal for his above and beyond service.
He saves three.
31 men of Marine Electric die. Die while watching rescue helicopters hover directly above them.
The questions were obvious. Why did so many men die under the watch of what was considered the world’s premier maritime rescue service? What went wrong? Who was responsible? The blame game swirled in a frenzy of newspaper investigations, maritime board inquiries, and congressional hearings.
The result from the findings was genuine reform. Reform that completely reshaped maritime safety regulations and ship inspections. Civilian and military survival suits became the norm. The US Congress, in the Coast Guard Authorization Act of 1984, mandated that “The Commandant of the Coast Guard shall use such sums as are necessary, from amounts appropriated for the operational maintenance of the Coast Guard, to establish a helicopter rescue swimmer program for the purpose of training selected Coast Guard personnel in rescue swimming skills.”
The Coast Guard Rescue Swimmer program had been born. It marked a new beginning in rescue operations. A move into the modern-era. The first five Rescue Swimmers became operational at Air Station Elizabeth City in 1985.
It wasn’t an easy evolution. This was not about adding a person to jump into the water. It meant creating an entirely new set of parameters for a new kind of a Life-Saver. Who would be a rescue swimmer? How would they train?
Today, the training program for the modern AST, or Aviation Survival Technician, continues to grow its own legacy and heritage within the Life-Saving community. Elizabeth City has established a facility that can only be described as world-class. Students train in modern wave generators, rotor wash simulators, zero visibility environments, and a wide range of realistic scenarios. The Rescue Swimmer program has earned a reputation as one of the most rigorous, and demanding trainings offered by any military service in the world. Many students do not make it through even the early stages. It is, without overstatement, a very elite corps that is able to graduate.
When I watch the US Coast Guard perform an aerial rescue swimmer demonstration, I am amazed at how routine it all seems. I have seen it at air-shows, watched it hundreds of times on television, and I wonder if anyone is thinking about how un- routine the act really is.
I wonder if anyone thinks about the Pilot; that man or woman with the nerve to fly twenty thousand pounds of machine into 60 knot winds. To push forward with no visibility, when the black of the night meets the black of the ocean, and there is no horizon. No reference of up or down. That can hold their beast so light and steady, while Mother Nature unleashes conditions that are barely survivable.
I wonder if anyone thinks about that Swimmer; that bravest of souls who chooses to leave the machine, leaping into waves with the power to destroy entire ships. I wonder if we ever think about their deep, uncompromised commitment to this oh so dangerous task before them.
I am almost 100% certain, or at least most assured, that none of the demonstration’s spectators give any thought at all to the crew of Marine Electric.
To those 31 souls lost in the waves that infamous morning.