A devastating disaster at sea . . . an officer who refuses to hide the truth. . . a courtroom confrontation with far-reaching implications . . . The Perfect Storm meets A Civil Action in a gripping account of one of the most significant shipwrecks of the twentieth century.In 1983 the Marine Electric, a "reconditioned" World War II vessel, was on a routine voyage thirty miles off the East Coast of the United States when disaster struck. As the old coal carrier sank, chief mate Bob Cusick watched his crew-his friends and colleagues-succumb to the frigid forty-foot waves and subzero winds of the Atlantic. Of the thirty-four men aboard, Cusick was one of only three to survive. And he soon found himself facing the most critical decision of his life: whether to stand by the Merchant Marine officers' unspoken code of silence, or to tell the truth about why his crew and hundreds of other lives had been unnecessarily sacrificed at sea.Like many other ships used by the Merchant Marine, the Marine Transport Line's Marine Electric was very old and made of "dirty steel" (steel with excess sulfur content). Many of these vessels were in terrible condition and broke down frequently.
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December 31, 2000
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Excerpt from Until the Sea Shall Free Them by Mel Odom
Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever... it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street and methodically knocking people's hats off -- then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can.
10:00 P.M. / THURSDAY, FEB. 10, 1983 / COAL TERMINAL NORFOLK, VIRGINIA
At the loading pier near Norfolk, Bob Cusick, the veteran chief mate, spread steam coal into the holds of the Marine Electric like a pastry chef layering a cake. No chunk was larger than a Ping-Pong ball, and some of the coal was just black powder. In bulk, the coal formed a huge mass, heavier than 10,000 automobiles, and it had to be loaded carefully so that the ship remained balanced.
Huge chutes passed over the ship and dumped black coal evenly at Cusick's command. Normally, it took three passes to load a ship this size, but Bob Cusick had done this more than a few times. He almost never needed the third, "finishing" pass. That was an advantage of time on the water, of time on the piers. There was a lot he knew, a lot he'd seen that the younger kids aboard ship might never see.
Still, Cusick always felt the excitement of leaving, of casting off, of starting the voyage. All of them, all thirty-four seamen and officers, felt it, even if this would be just a milk run up the coast, Virginia to Massachusetts and back, shuttling coal to the power plants of New England.
There were a number of green kids on the ship who felt the excitement more than Cusick, and he wondered what they must think he was doing now. For anyone with just a few months at sea would think Bob Cusick was cheating. Clearly, the chief mate of the Marine Electric was overloading his ship -- she had sunk below the legal load line. You could see it, if you knew just enough about the business not to know what you didn't know. Cusick had filled the hatches with 23,000 tons of coal on top of the 1,800 tons already there. And now the ship was five inches below its legal load line.
Or so it seemed. The truth was that Marine Transport Lines, the owner, never asked Cusick to overload a ship. That was one thing he liked about this job.
Another truth was that Cusick had checked the salinity of the harbor water carefully. It measured 1.013 on his hydrometer. That meant the harbor water was far less salty than ocean water. So when the Marine Electric sailed into the ocean, she would rise magically, like some huge high school science fair display, leaving her load line comfortably above the waterline.
Only there was nothing magic about it. It was professional procedure. And it was how Cusick got and kept a job that paid him well at a time when American maritime work was scarce.
He liked this job, and he liked the men he worked with. Most all of them, with their different ranks and duties, had drifted back to the ship as he was loading it.