Tuesday, August 27, 2013

US Maritime Disasters

In 1865 The SS Sultana was commissioned by the war department to transport just-released Union prisoners of war back home. The ship was legally registered to carry less than 400 people, but with the government paying $5 per soldier, 2,300 soldiers were packed in so tightly that they could barely stand.

At 2 a.m., April 27, three of the ship’s boilers exploded since they were rapidly and poorly repaired in order to get “first dibs” of the POWs. Fire quickly spread throughout the ship and those who survived jumped into the river and drowned. More than 1,700 soldiers died and the Sultana sank about seven miles north of Memphis, Tennessee.
Built in 1891, the 235-foot passenger steamship PS General Slocum was involved in a number of incidents, but none would compare to the disaster on June 15, 1904, when 1,358 passengers boarded the ship for an annual church event up the East River. Shortly after launch, a fire began in the forward section and within the hour, the fire had spread to a paint locker that contained flammable liquids. Unfortunately, the fire hoses had rotted away, the lifeboats were bolted in place, and life jackets were unusable. To make matters worse, the captain sailed into headwinds that actually spread the fire over the majority of the ship. By the time it sank off the Bronx shore, 1,021 people had died.
On July 24, 1915, the passenger ship SS Eastland was docked on the Chicago River preparing to depart for Lake Michigan. The ship had been chartered to take Western Electric Co. employees and their family members on a picnic. As the 2,700 passengers boarded the ship, it began to list while still moored to the dock. Eventually, the weight caused the ship to roll onto its side, spilling hundreds of passengers into the river with the rest trapped underwater in the interior cabins. The disaster killed 844 passengers, mostly women and children.
On Dec. 7, 1941, Japanese aircraft from six fleet carriers attacked the U.S. Navy’s Pacific Fleet in the port of Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. The two attack waves destroyed or severely damaged many vessels including several of the U.S. Navy’s prized battleships: the USS Arizona, California, Oklahoma and West Virginia. The Arizona sustained eight direct bomb hits, one of which penetrated the deck and the black-powder magazine. The subsequent explosion and fire ripped through the forward part of the ship. The Arizona sank at its mooring taking the lives of 1,177 of the 1,400 sailors on board making it the greatest loss of life on any warship in U.S. history. Its fires burned for more than two days and oil continues to seep up from the wreckage to this day. In all, 2,402 Americans were killed in the attack on Pearl Harbor.

Today, a 184-foot memorial structure spans the mid-portion of the Arizona and welcomes an average of 1.5 million visitors a year.
On April 16, 1947, a 437-foot French-registered vessel SS Grandcamp was docked in the port of Texas City on the Texas Gulf Coast. Its cargo included 2,300 tons of ammonium nitrate that was used for fertilizer and high explosives. After a small fire started in the cargo hold, the captain ordered his men to steam out the fire in order to protect the cargo. The steam actually liquefied the ammonium nitrate and raised the temperature of the hold to 850 degrees Fahrenheit, which caused the water around the ship to boil. At 9:12 a.m., the ammonium nitrate detonated with an explosive force that shattered windows 40 miles away, ignited nearby oil refineries, destroyed hundreds of buildings and even sheared off the wings of overhead planes. The explosion, dubbed the “Texas City Disaster,” injured thousands and killed an estimated 600 people.
The USS Thresher was a 3,700-ton, nuclear-powered attack submarine commissioned in August 1961. On April 9, 1963, the Thresher sailed to an area 220 miles east of Cape Cod, Massachusetts, and began a series of deep-sea trials. The next morning, the accompanying ship USS Skylark received a garbled message: “Minor difficulty … have positive up-angle, attempting to blow.” At 9:18 a.m., the Skylark’s sonar picked up the sounds of a submarine breaking apart. The submarine was found broken into six major sections at a depth of 8,400 feet. Investigations proved that the Thresher suffered from a failure in the piping system that caused a reactor shutdown and a loss of propulsion. Timed with the inability to blow the ballast tanks due to frozen valves, the submarine dropped like a brick and imploded with 129 members on board. The U.S. Navy lost another nuclear-powered submarine, the USS Scorpion, five years later, to unknown causes in an incident in the Atlantic. There have been no incidents since then.
The 697-foot liner SS Andrea Doria offered passengers three outdoor swimming pools and state-of-the-art cabins. The ship’s design included 11 watertight compartments and lifeboats that could be launched even if the ship’s list reached 20 degrees. On July 25, 1956, it was headed for New York with 1,706 passengers. At the same time, the 528-foot MS Stockholm was on its transatlantic voyage back to Sweden. The two ships charted similar courses at full speed completely unaware of each other’s presence. Once the ships spotted each other, it was too late and crucial errors in steering only made it worse. The bow of the Stockholm plunged into the Andrea Doria’s starboard side, ripping open seven decks. Within minutes the ship had listed 20 degrees and after 11 hours, the Andrea Doria sank. 1,660 passengers were rescued while 46 people died as a consequence of the collision. Today, the ship lies at a depth of almost 250 feet and has been called “The Mount Everest of Dive Sites” due to the challenging dive depth, dangerous currents, and fishing nets that drape the rusted hull.