Fire in the Harbor

by John Delach

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.