In 2006, I decided to research a piece about a spectacular maritime accident that took place in New York harbor in the spring of 1973. The Sea Witch, a container ship was outbound from the Howland Hook, Staten Island terminal. The ship had just entered the Narrows when the steering mechanism failed causing it to veer toward one of the Staten Island anchorages and strike the fully laden tanker, Esso Brussels, igniting its cargo of crude oil. Locked together, both ships drifted under the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge before they grounded in Gravesend Bay off of Bay Ridge, Brooklyn.
My initial searches were fruitless. When I Googled “Sea Witch,” the only match I made was for the Nineteenth Century Clipper Ship of the same name. I tried several different portals, each of them a dead end. Frustrated, I decided to visit the U.S. Maritime Academy’s library in Kings Point only to find that they too had a limited collection about the Sea Witch or the collision.
Finally, on an off-chance, I contacted the National Transportation Bureau’s Accident Investigation Bureau. That led me to a U.S. Coast Guard’s site where I discovered what I was seeking, the Coast Guard’s accident report. There it was right in front of me, their accident report. Between a balky printer and an unreliable internet connection, I worried over downloading and printing out each of those forty-seven pages until it finished.
I now had the foundation for my piece. Next, I made my way to the newspaper room at main branch of the NY Public Library at Fifth Ave. and Forty-Second Street to copy the articles that ran in each newspaper’s Metropolitan Section. I paid attention to The Staten Island Advance that focused on the accident as a local story.
One source led to another and slowly, the details I was seeking began to assemble. Still, I wasn’t satisfied relying principally on third-party reporting. One person’s name critical to telling this tale kept appearing, the pilot in charge of the Sea Witch when all hell broke loose, John T. (Jack) Cahill.
How to find him? I wrote a letter of introduction to the New York Harbor Pilots Association, the governing body for all licensed pilots, asking them to forward a second letter addressed to Cahill. My letter explained who I was and why I wanted to contact him.
Almost a month later my home phone rang while I was sitting in the kitchen. My hello triggered a rough voice that responded, “This is Jack Cahill, I understand you are looking for me?”
A week later found me heading west on I-78 almost to the Delaware River to meet Jack Cahill and discuss my project. He lived in retirement with his second wife, Andrea, who was of French extraction. Quite a scene, Cahill had a table full of folders that he didn’t choose to open while Andrea buzzed around the table in an obvious hostile mood.
I realized my situation was in doubt. Andrea didn’t want me in her home as she perceived me to be a threat to her man. If I couldn’t win here over, my visit would be a waste of time. I had to overcome her lack of trust in me.
I turned to her and said: “Mrs. Cahill, let me be assure you, from everything I have gathered about that night, your husband, Jack, was the true hero. If not for him, the Sea Witch crew would have perished. Let me make you both a pledge that I will not submit my story to any publication until Jack signs off on the content. If Jack doesn’t approve it, I will change it. If that doesn’t work, I will scrap it. To do otherwise would be a sin.”
Her reaction was immediate and amazing. The clouds parted and the sun shone down. Andrea offered me coffee and a tray of biscuits before she left the room. Jack opened his files, showed me his remarkable photos and told me his story.
I drove home knowing I had something special. Professional Mariner magazine bought my story and published it. I was ecstatic, my first (and only) paid published piece. Jack Cahill’s first- person account gave it wings.
Once published, a copy quickly made its way onto Wikipedia. The original listings attributed the piece to me but as time went on and different organizations picked up on it, my identity faded away.
Recently, I Googled the accident and found a serious expansion of my piece written for the fireboat “Fighter” museum. The author took complete license with what I had written yet retained my favorite line that I used to describe the initial conflagration when the ships collided: “…and the night exploded.”
I loved that line and this S.O.B. not only lifted what I wrote but took it out of sequence at his/hers convenience. Whoever you are: please note that plagiarism is and always will be plagiarism. Shame on you!
Truthfully, I really don’t mind.
I know that it was my effort that added this story to our collective memory. My baby, no one else’s. I conceived it and I birthed it.
Now my teenager is on her own.
Never published on this blog, In June, I will give you, dear reader, my revised edition of my story in two parts