John Delach

On The Outside Looking In

Month: June, 2019

“Furious Hours:” A New Book About Harper Lee

I recently finished an excellent but curious book about Harper Lee written by Casey Cep, a young, gifted writer. Ms Cep traveled to Alabama as a reporter for The New Yorker to write about Go Set A Watchman, Ms Lee’s sequel / prequel of To Kill a Mockingbird, published shortly before Lee’s death. While researching her subject, Cep uncovered evidence of another unpublished Harper Lee endeavor, a true crime story shrouded in mystery.

Curiously, I also discovered that Ms Cep too is shrouded in mystery. This brief bio appears on the jacket of her book: “Casey Cep is a writer from the Eastern Shore of Maryland. After graduating from Harvard with a degree in English, she earned an M.Phil in theology at Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar. Her work has appeared in The New Yorker, The New York Times and The New Republic, among other publication. Furious Hours id her first book.”

Another source noted that Ms Cep went on to earn a graduate degree in Divinity from Yale.

Beyond that Cep is a mystery. Her age is elusive and her identity; curious. The color photo of her inside the jacket of her book is the same as others I have found. Dark flowing hair, brushed to the left side of her face, she wears a black top with no discernable make-up or jewelry. She looks directly at the camera, tight lipped with eyes locked in a Clint Eastwood look that says to any and all intruders: “Make my day.”

Furious Hours is in many ways a biography of Harper Lee though Ms Cep doesn’t approach the story from that direction. Cep, instead takes the reader into the story of the Reverend Willie Maxwell, a black rural Alabaman preacher believed to have murdered five family members, all to collect life insurance money. Set in the 1970s, Maxwell eludes justice thanks to a local, savvy white lawyer who also profits from the reverend’s insurance proceeds. Finally, a cousin of his last victim takes revenge on the reverend at the victim’s wake by shooting three bullets into Reverend Brown’s face. Ironically, the same attorney who conspired with the reverend gets the murderer off on a plea of insanity.

I kid you not but take a breath to absorb all that before we continue.

Okay, if that is not enough, the murderer is found innocent by reason of insanity, remanded to the state’s mental hospital, where he is released three months later as a free man.

My purpose is not to review the book or to delve into the secrets Ms Cep uncovered about Ms Lee’s abortive decision to write this true crime story or how and why she abandoned her quest after ten or more years of research and work. Cep covers that waterfront in depth. She may not unearth all the bodies, but she uncovers many of them. Don’t expect to discover the essence of Ellie Harper Lee, but Cep opens several important and previously unknown or locked doors.

It’s the title: Furious Hours, that I found fascinating and confusing: “What furious hours?”

The sub-title is somewhat more palpable: “Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper Lee.”

Murder and fraud, I get, but last trial of Harper Lee? Hyperbole at best and unnecessary but I presume it helps to sell books.

However, the title, Furious Hours, doesn’t seem to make sense. The book spans thirty or more years and the phrase is not mentioned until Page 252 less than 20 pages from its end. Most of the book is centered around the town of Alexander City in eastern Alabama.

Cep does tell us that Nelle Harper Lee and her oldest sister, Alice, were enamored by Albert James Pickett’s History of Alabama, first published in 1851, especially the passages detailing the lives and fates of the indigenous tribes belonging to the Creek Nation who once lived in that part of the south.

Ms Cep writes: “Pickett’s history does not continue past statehood’… (1819.)  “(Harper) Lee had a theory about why Pickett had stopped writing. ‘I do not believe that it was in him,’ she said, ‘to write about the fate of the Creek Nation, of the Cherokees, of the Chickasaws and Choctaws, which was decided within his own lifetime.’ Instead his narrative concluded with the ‘engagements’ between Andrew Jackson’s army and the Creeks which Lee said, ‘began to spell the end, which came as we all know, in a few furious hours at Horseshoe Bend.’ Then Lee said something more revealing…: ‘I think Pickett left his heart at Horseshoe Bend.”

More than 800 Creek warriors were killed in six hours of fighting at the battle of Horseshoe Bend. I believe those were Ms Cep’s furious hours.

Ms Cep continues: “If so, he wasn’t the only one who left some crucial part of himself in Tallapoosa County. Lee left something there too – if not her heart, then perhaps her nerve.”

I believe Casey Cep Has constructed a premise that for whatever reason, Ellie Harper Lee lost the courage to write this crime story because, like the outgunned Creeks, she finally reached a realization that she couldn’t write this book. The essence and substance of the plot were exclusively the property of the African-American community of Alexander City. Individually and collectively, these people had been deprived, de-valued and debased by the white community, justice system and press.

There wasn’t any record of the circumstances surrounding these killings in court records or newspapers. They weren’t considered newsworthy so the only insights into the story were locked into the oral folk-lore of the black community. Harper Lee knew that her sources for her book were locked into this community alien to her as if it was on Mars. She finally conceded that a bridge did not exist for her to cross that divide between her part of the Jim Crow south and their’s. 

I do recommend Ms Cep’s book, but like Elle Harper Lee, it appears that Casey Cep may have her own dark closets.

TWA Rising

On Flag Day, Mary Ann and I walked into the lobby of the original Terminal Five, TWA’s former Flight Center at John F. Kennedy International Airport for the first time since February of 2001. Back on that cold Saturday morning we were catching our flight on a TWA 767 to Porto Plata in the Dominican Republic. Our purpose last Friday was to have lunch at the newly opened TWA Hotel that utilizes the soaring concrete and glass main terminal as its lobby, food court, museum and our destination, The Paris Cafe.

Philip Kennicott noted in his review for The Washington Post: “Eero Saarinen’s 1962 TWA terminal has always been about selling a fantasy.”  Indeed, it did back in its day and indeed it does again. As college students in the early 1960s my cousin, Bill and I would occasionally drive out to New York International Airport or Idlewild, it’s popular name, to visit the new terminals seemingly springing up out of nowhere. Seven were constructed, Number One, Eastern Airlines, Two, Northwest, Three, Pan American, Four, The International Arrivals Building for foreign and small domestic airlines, TWA’s Number Five; Eight, American and Nine, United. (Six and Seven would be built later, Number Six a second terminal for TWA as they outgrew their flight center and Number Seven for British Airways.)

Five of the seven were boring box-like structures., Only Pan American’s World Port and TWA’s Flight Center presented buildings that rivaled the innovations in design, architecture and engineering simultaneously being developed for the 1964-1965 New York’s World Fair. Those two were our favorites and we had easy access to almost all areas during those long-gone innocent days of minimal security. Only First Class and the private airline clubs, TWA’s Ambassador’s Club and Pan Am’s Clipper Club were off limits. 

The overhanging roof at Pan Am’s circular World Port was its most innovative feature It protected passengers from all precipitation as they used outside stairs to board and de-plane aircraft. Impressive, but not comparable to Saarinen’s bird-like design that rose upward and outward, creating an enormous open space unsupported by internal columns. It took your breath away or so it seemed.

Fantasy was swell, but it took until January of 1977 before I made my first flight from that magnificent edifice, a Saturday morning trip to San Francisco on a Lockheed L-1011. I made my first business trip to London in 1976, but, for several years, I preferred British Airways as they were the only carrier to offer a day flight to London, BA Flight 178 that left JFK at 10 am. I did fly TWA home several times arriving at Terminal Five. Once TWA added a day flight, I switched over to TWA for most of my trans-Atlantic flights.

I stayed the course when Carl Icahn muscled his way into control of the airline although with guilt and a bit of fear. The striking seasoned flight attendants were replaced with newbies who were heavy on smiles and giggles but short on competence. I doubted their effectiveness in an emergency. Fortunately, the veterans returned but Icahn had broken the spirit that was TWA. By then three of the legacy airlines were failing, Eastern, Pan American and TWA. To survive they gutted themselves. TWA sold off its transatlantic routes to American Airlines in 1990. They ceased all remaining operations in October of 2001 closing Terminal Five.

Even though it sat dormant, the building had a life insurance policy, the City of New York had designated both the exterior and interior as historical landmarks in 1994. Various proposals fell apart or failed and it remained in repose until 2016 when Tyler Morse, chief executive of MCR Development, owners of 88 hotels announced the plans for the TWA Hotel. Long story short, it came to pass this May.

Though I didn’t wear a tie, I felt the need to wear my blazer, Mary Ann wore a white, woven poncho over her white blouse and black slacks. After leaving her Jeep with valet parking we entered the lobby. To the left and right were tube shaped corridors once used for check-in stations. If memory serves me, international to the left and domestic to the right.

Straight ahead a wide marble staircase led to an old friend, a sunken seating plaza carpeted in ruby red, TWA’s primary color. A tall glass window framed the rear of the lounge but instead of presenting a view of a busy tarmac, taxiways and runways in the distance, that view was now blocked by Jet Blue’s Terminal Five. Morse understood the need to improve this landscape, so he bought a surplus Air Force Lockheed Constellation domiciled in Maine, dressed it in TWA colors and had it trucked to JFK. Re-christened “Star of America” the airplane restores the fantasy of flight.

And fantasy abounded; hostesses occupied a desk by the entrance wearing vintage TWA stewardess uniforms. “Behind them a reproduction of a vintage Italian hand-made Solari di Udine split-flap display board made its distinctive tik-a-tik-a-tik-a-tik-tik-a-tik chatter as it announced flight departures and arrivals from an orchidlike sculptural pedestal.”

Rotary pay phones. A sign read, “Make a call for ten cents or try it for free.” Mary Ann dialed our home number and reached our answering machine. An old shoeshine stood-unmanned. Morse had done his best to create a time warp. I took it all in; once this was a friendly place to begin journeys to far off places, journeys of triumph, failure, fun or boredom.

Lunch was disappointing. The write-up for the Paris Café led me to believe that with luck, lunch would feature a croque monsieur one of my favorite French inventions. Instead, the menu was anything but French. I settled on a cheeseburger, Mary Ann a tuna tartare appetizer.

After lunch we explored the old girl one more time. I led Mary Ann to the other mezzanine where the Ambassador Club was once domiciled. The bar was gone, but we did discover an alcove where VIP’s could relax in private Called the “Pope’s Room,” Pope John Paul II used it during his 1987 Papal visit to America.

The two elevated tubes that once led to the long-gone separate structures that once housed the gates now led to the two separate hotel wings. Re-carpeted in ruby red they looked much as they did back in the day.

Before leaving we explored the Connie decked out mostly as a lounge with a bar at one end. Three rows of two across seats had been installed, one, the larger first-class variety and two rows of smaller coach seats albeit larger than any coach seat in the sky today. The guide informed us that these were the actual seats TWA used to furnish their Constellations. The discovery of ash trays built into the arm rests gave him credence.

I left with mixed emotions. It was truly fun to see the terminal again in its restored condition but a bit sad too. Most of the people who come to visit or stay there won’t have a clue what TWA was like as an airline and not just a theme for an airport hotel.   

Fire in the Harbor: Part Two

Grounded in Gravesend Bay off Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, the spreading conflagration enveloping the Sea Witch and the Esso Brussel intensified.

The inferno created havoc on board the Sea Witch as the contents of the on-deck containers quickly caught fire and began to explode. Aerosols containing hydrocarbons and fluorocarbons; hair spray, shaving cream and spray paint turned into lethal projectiles that exploded through the thin aluminum skin of other containers igniting more and more cargo. The crew first took shelter near the stern, outside the aft deckhouse, but the heat, smoke and the intensity of exploding containers drove them inside. Their cabin of refuge had a ½ inch fire hose that they used to spray continuously the bulkheads, deck and overhead watching in horror as the water evaporated into steam. Without it, they would have been baked to death. The hose kept them alive, but they had to endure a hurricane of noise and pressure that assaulted their senses and sanity as containers, their cargoes and the ship’s own gear erupted at its own choosing.

By then the life and death struggle of the Esso Brussels’ crew had played itself out. Tugs rescued the survivors, but thirteen of the crew were lost.

Firefighter tackled the fire blazing on the port side of the Esso Brussels. Amazingly, despite the intensity of the inferno, none of the oil that remained in the vessel’s still intact tanks caught fire. It was only when the firemen extinguished the fire on the port side that they realized the bow of the Sea Witch was protruding from starboard side and that two vessels were involved in the inferno. Finally, they proceeded along the port side of the container ship towards her stern.

Fires onboard the Sea Witch continued to spread as the contents of containers caught fire or exploded. Breathing was an ordeal even though the trapped crew covered their faces with wet towels and knelt on the deck. Sensing that this desperate condition was not improving, Cahill took the initiative to signal potential rescuers. He grabbed a blanket, had it soaked with the hose, wrapped it around himself and stepped outside waving his flashlight toward the Firefighter. The crew spotted Cahill and, using their water cannons, fought through the flaming water to reach the stern. Two ladders were raised from the fireboat allowing the thirty trapped men to descend to Firefighter.

The fires on the Esso Brussels were mostly under control once daylight arrived and the Coast Guard and Fire Department agreed to have tugs separate the vessels. After the tanker was re-floated, the fireboats easily extinguished what little oil continued to burn.

 The Sea Witch was in a more critical condition as almost all the on-deck containers were still burning. Four fireboats were ordered to use maximum waterpower to put out the fire creating a severe list of 25 degrees forcing the authorities to reduce their efforts to two nozzles from a single fireboat. Containers burned or smoldered for several days before being declared under control.

Exxon worked with the Coast Guard and Fire Department to unload the remaining cargo from the tanker into barges that carried it to their refinery. Once empty, the Esso Brussels was towed to the Bethlehem Shipyard in Hoboken, NJ to await disposition.

The Coast Guard estimated that of the 319,000 barrels of oil the tanker carried, 16,000 barrels escaped after the collision. What didn’t burn, washed up on Staten Island, Bay Ridge and Coney Island, but the same low flash point that made this crude so volatile also caused most oil to evaporate.

Salvage of the container ship was far more complicated. It wasn’t until June 14th that a salvage crew was able to pump out enough water from below decks to bring the vessel back to an even keel. CO2 was pumped into the holds to stabilize the contents of the containers stored under deck and the remaining fires in the on-deck containers were extinguished. The derelict Sea Witch was offloaded, then towed to a pier at the former Brooklyn Navy Yard where she would remain for eight years.

Coast Guard hearings opened on Monday, June 4th and it quickly came to light that the Sea Witch had had frequent steering problems. The investigation revealed ten similar incidents had occurred since 1969. The immediate response from the Coast Guard was to advise all operators of vessels with similar steering systems to modify the mechanics to prevent a similar failure.

Exxon sold the tanker to the Greek ship owner, John D. Latsis on an “as is where is” basis. He had the vessel towed to Piraeus where it was rebuilt and sailed under a variety of names for several of his companies until she was withdrawn from service and scrapped in 1985.

Various American maritime firms expressed interest in salvaging the engine spaces of the Sea Witch. She was finally towed to Newport News Shipbuilding’s yard. All spaces forward of the engine room deck house were cutoff and scrapped being replaced by a new forebody built at the yard. Converted to a Jones Act, US flag chemical carrier, she was first re-named the Chemical Discoverer later re-named the Chemical Pioneer. In April of 2015, I saw her on the Mississippi River outbound from Baton Rouge as we passed her on the American Queen.

Government regulations, new industry standards and technology have made the transit of ships through the Narrows safer since that early morning collision in 1973. Still it should be a lasting reminder that navigating large vessels in confined waters is a difficult enterprise requiring utmost training, diligence, good judgment and luck. 

Fire in the Harbor

Part One

First published in 2006, this piece ran in “Professional Mariner” and was included in the author’s anthology, “The Big Orange Dog.”

Just before midnight on June 1, 1973, the CV Sea Witch left Staten Island carrying 445 containers below deck and 285 containers above deck.  Built by Bath Iron Works in 1968, she was small by today’s standards. The Sea Witch had a length of 610 feet overall and a gross tonnage of 17,902. The bridge and officer’s quarters were located forward of the holds while the machinery spaces and crews’ quarters were aft, giving the ship the appearance of a fat Great Lakes boat.

John T. (Jack) Cahill, a pilot active since 1948, took charge of the ship directing it east toward St. George, Staten Island. In addition to Cahill, Captain John Paterson, and three other members of the vessel’s crew occupied the compact bridge. As a precaution, Captain Paterson positioned the chief mate and two seamen on the fo’c’sle to help spot other marine traffic and be able to lower the anchors should an emergency arise.

Twenty-nine minutes after midnight, Cahill ordered the speed increased to full harbor speed, 13.4 knots. With the ebb tide traveling at approximately two to three knots, the Sea Witch’s actual speed was about 15 knots. As the ship crossed the ferry terminal at the tip of St. George, he directed the helmsman to bring the ship to a heading of 167 degrees to begin transiting the Narrows separating Staten Island from Brooklyn. Seven minutes later he corrected the course to 156 degrees.

The helmsman did not respond as expected. Instead, he told the captain that the vessel was no longer steering. Captain Paterson remarked, “That damn steering gear, again.” He attempted to correct the problem by transferring steering control from the starboard system to the port system. Cahill also took corrective action ordering, “Hard left rudder.”

Both the captain’s and the pilot’s attempts proved futile. The port and starboard steering units fed into a single mechanism controlled by a faulty “key”; a device like a cotter pin that had come undone. Without it, Sea Witch lost all steering control and the currents forced the vessel out of the channel towards Staten Island.

Cahill immediately ordered the engines reversed to full astern and for the crew on the bow to let go the port anchor.  He blew a series of short rapid blasts on the ship’s whistle signaling that the Sea Witch was in distress and ordered the general alarm bell rung to alert the crew, many of whom were in their quarters.

The Esso Brussels lay anchored in the southernmost Narrows Anchorage just north of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge. The tanker carried 319,402 barrels of light Nigerian crude destined for Exxon’s Bayway Refinery. The Esso Brussels was a handsome ship built in 1960. At 25,906 GRT, she retained classic tanker lines with her bridge and the officer’s quarters located amidships while the engines and aft deckhouse included crew’s quarters were located towards the stern.

Captain Constant Dert commanded a mixed European crew of 36 men and one woman, Gisele Rome, the first steward.

The bow crew on the Sea Witch couldn’t release the port anchor.

By now, she was closing in on the Esso Brussels and Cahill locked the whistle to sound continuously. The first mate ordered his men to release the starboard anchor. They freed the windlass, but the chain would not run. Cahill and Paterson ordered them off the bow and they retreated behind the forward superstructure. Only two and one-half minutes after the pilot and the captain realized that the ship was out of control, the Sea Witch was a mere 200 feet from the starboard side of the Esso Brussels. Cahill advised Paterson to clear the bridge allowing these five mariners to make it as far as the boat deck behind the forward superstructure when the night exploded.

About two minutes before being struck, the mate standing watch on the Esso Brussels’s bridge heard the Sea Witch’s whistle. His first thought was that the disabled ship would pass astern of his tanker, but as the ship continued to veer in his direction, he recognized the impending danger and sounded the alarm awakening the crew.

 The Sea Witch rammed its reinforced bow into the starboard side of the tanker between the midship and aft deck houses, piercing three cargo tanks. The conflagration was instantaneous and flaming oil began to spread rapidly. Captain Dert supervised the crew as they lowered the motorized aft port lifeboat. Despite the chaos, the crew managed to launch the boat, only to have trouble releasing it from its lines. That accomplished, a mate tried to turn a hand-crank to start the engine, but the space needed was filled with terrified crew making this impossible. A last attempt to row away from the advancing fire was thwarted by the engines of the Sea Witch, now in reverse, that pulled both ships down the Narrows despite the resistance from the tanker’s anchors. The movement created a suction pinning the lifeboat against the tanker forcing the crew to jump in a desperate hope of escaping the flames that rounded the stern.

The fireboat, Firefighter, based at nearby St. George, S.I.  arrived minutes after the collision. The firemen could not tell that two ships were trapped in the inferno as both vessels were enveloped in a sea of flames that extended three thousand yards in front of them.

Flames from the burning oil radiated 200 feet out from both ships and rose so high that they scorched the bottom of the Verazzano-Narrows Bridge as the ships passed underneath. Fortunately, the wreck passed under the bridge quickly, preventing the steel. from suffering heat damage South of the bridge, the ships grounded in Gravesend Bay.