The loss of the bulk carrier Marine Electric off the coast of Virginia on Feb 12, 1983, with just three survivors from her crew of 34, led to major changes being brought in by the US Coast Guard. This is the story of the tragedy from a special article by Petty Officer 2nd. Class Corinne Zilnicki, of the Coast Guard.
On the night of Feb 11- 12, 1983, the US bulk carrier Marine Electric headed northwards on her way from Hampton Roads to Boston in a fierce winter storm.
After the watch changed, the conditions worsened. The 34 crew had been battling 25ft waves for hours and the bow had bucked and dipped as usual but now it seemed only to dip. The entire foredeck was covered in six feet of water.
Some 30 miles off Virginia’s eastern shore at 0230, her Master, Captain Phillip Corl and the Chief Mate Robert Cusick agreed that the bow was settling. They were taking on too much water. At 0251, Capt Corl made the first radio distress call to the Coast Guard: “I seem to be taking on water forward. We need someone to come out and give us some assistance, if possible.”
By the time assistance arrived, the Marine Electric had listed, rolled violently to starboard and capsized. Most of the crew were hurled into the 37 deg water.
The Chief Mate surfaced, and spotted a partially-submerged lifeboat nearby. Some 30 minutes later, he pulled himself into the swamped lifeboat and started thrashing his legs to stay warm. He said: “I was continually yelling out ‘Lifeboat here’. Then I waited and prayed for daylight to come.”
The Coast Guard had sent a HH-3F Pelican helicopter from Air Station Elizabeth City, North Carolina, and directed several cutters to the ship’s position, but the weather conditions slowed their progress.
The Naval Air Station Oceana had to recall available personnel before launching a US Navy helicopter. The crew included rescue swimmer Petty Officer 2nd Class James McCann.
The Coast Guard helicopter was the first to arrive at 0520 and found a blinking sea of strobe lights, empty lifeboats and bodies in the water. The Navy helicopter lowered PO McCann who searched through the oil-slicked waves for survivors and recovered five unresponsive seamen before he was incapacitated by hypothermia.
The crew of the Coast Guard helicopter in the southern end of the search area, discovered Paul Dewey, alone in a liferaft. He clambered into the rescue basket and was hoisted up, then about 30 yards away, the crew saw the Third Mate Eugene Kelly clinging to a lifebelt and used the basket to retrieve him.