The SS Marine Electric was a World War II-era bulk carrier assisting the fishing vessel Theodora while it was sinking on the East Coast during a record-breaking nor’easter in February of 1983. The shipwreck was an intense situation, as while the SS Marine Electric was attempting to protect Theodora, the bulk carrier also began to sink. Explore how this maritime disaster inspired a life-saving program.
How Did the SS Marine Electric Sink?
In addition to assisting the 65-foot fishing vessel, Theodora, the SS Marine Electric was attempting to survive in a record-breaking nor’easter, one that was violently tossing ships around and closing down airports, until the United States Coast Guard could reach the sinking ship. At the same time, the SS Marine Electric was transporting approximately 28,000 pounds of coal from Virginia to Massachusetts.
The fishing vessel Theodora was found about 50 miles southeast of Chincoteague, Virginia. The SS Marine Electric protected the Theodora from the destructive waves. Once the Coast Guard Rescue team arrived, they were able to use water pumps to save Theodora and escort the ship back to safe harbor.
The Marine Electric was then cleared by the Coast Guard to continue on their route to Massachusetts. The SS Marine Electric, however, had been roughed up more than just a bit. The ship was now taking on water itself, so the captain of the ship, Philip Corl, charted a shorter and safer journey to get away from the blizzard up to Newport, Rhode Island.
Around 2:00 a.m. on February 12, the front of the ship began to dip below the waves, as the ship was plowing through the waves rather than riding with them. The ship had a compromised cargo hatch, which allowed water to rush into the bow and begin flooding the ship. Eventually, more water reached other cargo holds, which began to flood and weigh down the entire ship.
An hour later, the deck of the USS Marine Electric was 6 ft. under water, and at 4:14 a.m, the captain ordered the crew to abandon the ship. The Coast Guard rescue team didn’t arrive until after the Marine Electric sinking was complete, and the crew had no choice but to wait for rescue in the frigid Atlantic waters.
Saving the Members of the SS Marine Electric
When the SS Marine Electric threw most of the crew overboard as it was sinking in the Atlantic, chaos erupted. Chief Mate Cusick was one crew member who surfaced from the water and found one of the ship’s lifeboats floating near him.
According to the ship’s captain, Cusick swam for 30 minutes through the rough waves until he reached the lifeboat. He then pulled himself into the lifeboat and attempted to stay warm.
Eugene Kelly was also a crew member on the Marine Electric. According to Military.com, Kelly was the one to throw the life rings into the water while he was still on the sinking ship. Once the ship threw him into the water, Kelly found about five men holding themselves afloat on one of the life rings he threw them.
Soon after, the Coast Guard rescue helicopter arrived at their location and found both Kelly and Cusick. Since the Coast Guard did not yet have rescue swimmers themselves, Navy rescue swimmers were brought to the scene to help with the situation. Rescue swimmer Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class James McCann soon arrived on a Navy helicopter, after which he pulled five bodies out of the water before he suffered hypothermia.
Are Navy Rescue Swimmers Special Forces?
Navy rescue swimmers are considered special forces; they enter dangerous conditions and are extremely skilled and able to work in nearly any challenging environment. Navy rescue swimmers also must meet certain qualifications before they are able to go through training and eventually become rescue swimmers.
The Start of the Coast Guard Rescue Swimmer Program
After the incident, Coast Guard Captain Domenic Calicchio, who was a part of the SS Marine Electric investigation, spearheaded the Coast Guard rescue swimmer program. The Coast Guard Aviation Survival Technician School is a demanding 24-week course that was established in 1985 and is now taught in Petaluma, California.
Rescue swimmers are trained to swim through the rough waters and respond to casualties at sea. The SS Marine Electric casualty had a huge impact on creating this program within the Coast Guard. Now, rescue swimmers are a significant asset to the Coast Guard rescue team.