Fire in the Harbor: Part Two

by John Delach

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.