When a sinking Spanish freighter sent out an SOS during a storm in heavy Atlantic seas, the Coast Guard Cutter Escanaba II(WHEC-64) sprang into action.
Early in the morning of 10 January 1966, the barometric pressure was plummeting, and winds were blowing harder against the Escanaba II. While she attempted to maintain position on Ocean Station Echo, the ship suffered incessant 15 deg rolls, and with each plunge of her bow, green water cascaded over the O- 1 deck, slamming against her bridge. This impending storm proved to be one of the worst the ship ever had weathered. And the outcome proved also that miracles do happen, even to crusty old sailors.
The Escanaba was 255 feet long, with a 43-foot beam, a weather patrol cutter that experienced no trouble mastering this type of seas. Her massive Westinghouse 4,000horsepower, turboelectric power plant kept her plowing through heavy swells, shaking off water like a duck in a rain storm.
The weather grew continually worse, but the ship maintained station. The turbulence had begun to take a toll, however, as water sloshed around in the main deckhouse passageway because of a leaky seal on a starboard watertight hatch. Had this enigmatic situation arisen under moderate weather conditions, the captain would slow to one-third speed so that the deck force could mop up the pool, thereby avoiding a water hazard below decks. The need to maintain headway in this case, however, made reduction in speed absolutely unthinkable.
Nevertheless, this would prove to be the least of the ship's tribulations, for the storm intensified to a number nine-force gale, bouncing the Escanaba around like a cork in a bathtub. Several of the newer crewmen literally had turned green, and were making periodic visits to the head. Some owed their dilemma in part to our Executive Officer, Lieutenant Commander Walter F. Bartlett, and his love of Parodi cigars—especially when standing watch in a deluge on an enclosed bridge.
Suddenly, at 1522 Eastern Standard Time, the bridge (via the radio-room) received an urgent message from Commander, Eastern Area: "The motor vessel Monte Palomares/EDMI is reported listing heavily in heavy seas and crew is abandoning ship in position 38-22N 49-03W. Vessels in vicinity keep sharp lookout and assist if possible." It was signed, Coast Guard New York.
The MV Monte Palomares, a 474-foot Spanish-registered freighter, was losing her battle steadily against stormy North Atlantic seas. The cargo—11,000 tons of corn loaded in Norfolk, Virginia, and bound for Barcelona, Spain—had shifted when the gale caught her, effecting an ever-increasing list to port. To compound her problems, rising water had caused her engines to malfunction, leaving the ship at the mercy of the angry seas. Her skipper, Captain Jose Goyta, had no other recourse; he ordered his radioman to send out an SOS.
Commander Robert E. Foley, the Escanaba's commanding officer, was apprised of the situation immediately. Hastily, he sent a message to Commander, Eastern Area, asking if he should depart Ocean Station Echo. The answer was: Affirmative. He then transmitted a message that the cutter was en route. Subsequently, the boatswain's mate of the watch announced: "Now hear this, all hands stand by for possible heavy rolls as the ship comes about!" After this broadcast, Foley ambled slowly over to the public address and—looking much like he had the weight of the world on his shoulders—announced the ship's destination.
We were soon en route to the latitude and longitude specified. The worst part was that the seas, the wind, and the blinding rain squalls got worse the farther we went.
At 1615, as we were changing course to comply with orders (with the helmsman calling out his heading every 10 deg), Foley received a second message. The Monte Palomares had sunk.
The reports coming in were grim. The rampaging seas where she went down (840 miles east northeast of Bermuda) were mountainous, towering 30 to 45 feet with winds gusting from 35 to 50 knots. The chances of survival for the merchant's crew were, at best, very slim.
In addition to our ship, Coast Guard Headquarters, in compliance with general search-and-rescue procedures, had asked any ship in the area to aid in the search for survivors. The storm was registering as number ten seas with the west northwest winds at force ten, howling like a keening widow. It was a full-blown gale.
Moreover, the SS Steelmaker—a 12,000-ton freighter whose radio operator, George McCartney, had been in radio contact with the Monte Palomares since the first call for help at 1309—was steaming at full speed to the last known position of the imperiled Spaniard. The Steelmaker's young skipper, Ove V. Hultin, had his ship running at break-neck speed in order to execute a rescue. Hultin knew that he had little time to dally.
After battling an enraged Atlantic for nine hours, the Steelmaker was on the scene of the disaster. Luckily, the U.S. Air Force had managed to get a plane into the air from the 57th Air Rescue Squadron out of Lajes Air Base in the Azores. And that plane was the first to spot a tiny raft, with four semiconscious, sopping-wet occupants.
Hultin said that his crew had first spotted a flare. The master of the freighter then slowly brought his ship alongside the raft, yelling "All Stop." He kept his engines online in case he had to maneuver. Sailors on board the Steelmaker lowered a cargo net from a boom, and three of the men in the raft grabbed hold of it. As the net raised slowly, one of the men, Miguel Escheandia, slipped off and fell into the water. "Our third mate quickly climbed down the net and jumped into the raft. He pulled Escheandia out of the water and placed him in the net, then put another man, Santiago Uriaguereca, the chief cook, in the net," said Hultin.
The 3rd mate, Paul Hellebrand of South Carolina, held the two Spaniards in the net as it raised over the pitching deck. A transmitted report (via radio) indicated that the Steelmaker had four survivors safely on board and would continue a search for more.
From these first four survivors, however, the Coast Guard learned the fate of the Monte Palomares crew. The still-warm boilers had exploded, sending flames leaping into the air, as water rushed into the engine room. Goyta and 11 members of his crew apparently went down with the ship. The four men related that two rafts had slipped away. The second could not be launched until water rushed over the deck as the ship was sinking, thereby releasing her tie-downs. The four survivors all agreed that they saw five or six men climb into the foundering raft. One stated that he thought he saw three men in the water clinging to the raft's man-ropes. The starboard lifeboat could not be lowered because of the ship's drastic list to port. Yet crew members were seen lowering the somewhat damaged port lifeboat. A group of 18 men had managed to get the boat into the water, only to be washed away with it in the heavy seas. The first raft survivors did not know whether any had pulled themselves on board.
The Escanaba, meanwhile, was steaming at full speed, as Foley was ordered to assume command of the entire search-and-rescue effort. The Air Force was to provide air support, which was a blessing as the winds and salt spray were playing havoc with the lookouts' ability to see more than a few yards through binoculars that had been rendered useless. Fortunately, smoke emitted by a flare can be observed by the naked eye, even in a towering sea.
The night was long. The deck force spent most of its time securing loose gear, thereby eliminating "missile hazards." Anything rolling around her decks could have proved devastating. The boatswain's mates were ordered to secure any and all objects, tying them down if need be, which could be a possible hazard to life and limb. Every compartment was checked and double-checked. At around 0300 one of the "deckies" noticed that a few of the ports had sprung leaks; water was gushing out of the troughs directly under the portholes and onto tables and decks. These had to be secured, and fast. The constant assault by rushing water had loosened the "dogs."
The bridge was informed of the situation below; therefore, Bartlett ordered that the "battle ports" be dogged, forcing the seals to grab and hold. The steel battle ports did the trick; the leaking ceased.
Meanwhile, 240 miles southeast of the Monte Palomares disaster, the Lampsis, a 441-foot Greek freighter, reported she had been damaged badly by the gale and was requesting assistance. The USCGC Androscoggin (WHEC-68)—the ship that was supposed to have relieved the Escanaba on patrol—was diverted to the scene. The Lampsis's skipper had stated: "I fear I may have to abandon ship at daybreak. Maybe sooner." A crack developed in the hull earlier that day [the 10th], bulkheads had separated, incoming water damaged the ship's boilers, and all power was lost. She had been buffeted by the storm all day and was in danger of breaking apart. Her captain also reported his crew had been battling to keep her afloat since early afternoon.
The Androscoggin, after contesting the wind-swept ocean, arrived at the stricken ship's side at 1800. Later, after an initial assessment by an Androscoggin damage control party, it was decided that, because of the cracks extending below the waterline and the water in the engine room (which had risen to nearly 15 feet) and the fact she had no power, it was best to abandon ship, post haste.
The captain and all 30 crew members were then transferred safely to the Coast Guard ship, and the cutter awaited the West German salvage tug Albatross to attempt a tow. Early on 12 January, however, the Lampsis, with her cargo of manganese ore, slipped slowly beneath the waves.
On the 10th, the Escanaba continued her struggle to reach the area where the Monte Palomares had sunk. The seas and heavy winds had abated enough that she was beginning to make headway. The storm had been reclassified by the U.S. Weather Bureau as number nine, with winds down to 25 knots. And by the time [0100 Tuesday the 11th] our ship had arrived at the coordinates, had assumed command, and had set up search patterns, the storm was again reclassified. The turbulence then was recorded as a number seven—with seas receding to 15 to 20 feet and visibility increasing to 3 to 5 miles.
The search patterns having been divided, the flotilla—consisting of three merchant ships nearest the Escanaba and four on the outskirts of the area—commenced surface search. At the same time, the Air Force conducted an air search for one tiny raft and a lifeboat from the stricken vessel. One of our ensigns summed it up by saying: "The chances of locating anyone in those seas is, literally, like finding a needle in a haystack!" Foley answered, saying: "Mister that's what we're here for." (With the water temperature at 64 deg and air temperature at 57 deg, a person could last only up to 32 hours.) This had become a race against time.
During the day, the planes reported flotsam: three empty life vests here, a life jacket there, and a few green and yellow-striped steel drums identified as deck cargo from the submerged vessel. Yet no raft or lifeboat was reported. Even the double lookouts fore and aft on the Escanaba reported nothing. And the worry showed in our captain's eyes.
Surprisingly, at 1700 on 11 January, one of the search planes announced that it had found a raft, with three people on board. After acknowledging her position, Foley yelled, "Come right," and ordered our new heading. If only we could get there in time.
The weather, having moderated, proved to be a boon. We could run at full speed without taking a beating, as we had been doing all the way to the scene. The only true problem would be getting a boat over the side. The wind was still strong; the chances of dashing the boat against our freeboard were great. True, the seas had lessened, but the fierce rolls easily could smash a small boat to splinters.
While the captain and executive officer mulled this problem, the plane that had sighted the raft started dropping flares, circling the area to lead us in. Meanwhile, someone suggested using an idea we had practiced a number of times—putting someone over the side with a flotation "horse collar" around him. That way, the raft would be tied to the rescue ship, and the occupants could be retrieved.
Accordingly, Foley asked for volunteers. He could not in good conscience order men to risk their lives in this endeavor. The hazards were too great. The ship could roll over them, thereby sucking them under, and the men could tip over the raft while attempting to hook up. This called for volunteers. The number of crewmen to show up on the bridge was astounding. But because the captain wanted no married personnel to attempt the risky rescue, the list narrowed considerably. The two men picked in the end were Radarman 3rd Class Howard Lifson and Seaman Boatswain's Mate William Ribar, both of Minnesota. They ran through the proceedings and were ordered into wetsuits to ward off the water's chill and told to stand easy.
The ship, still battling rough seas, closed slowly on the coordinated position, with lookouts searching the sky for signs of the circling plane, the water for signs of a raft and/or flares. Tension mounted. Prayers were uttered silently. The suspense on the bridge was thick.
Suddenly, one of the lookouts sang out through the voice tube: "Bridge . . . lookout . . . smoke bearing 350, range 5,000 yards...." Immediately after answering, "Very well," Foley—a look of relief crossing his face-ordered rescue stations, as he rushed out to the port bridge wing. The elusive raft had been found.
After the ship slowed to one-third, the deck force prepared to hoist the survivors on board. The lifeline was rigged through a block attached to the forward boat davit. While Ribar and Lifson waited nervously on the main deck, we edged slowly toward the raft. When the ship was in the right position, and the captain had called "All stop," Ribar and Lifson jumped over the side into the churning water. The two swimmers, one with a horse collar around his middle, struggled to reach the bouncing life raft. Upon gaining the side, Ribar climbed in, attaching the heaving-line—already thrown to the raft—to an o-ring, thereupon securing the raft to the ship. The deck crew took up slack; the raft inched slowly toward the Escanaba.
After detaching the lifelines from themselves, they placed the horse collar around one of the soaked and semiconscious sailors; one by one, they were hoisted on board. Not until Garcia and Bereincua were safely on board did we realize that Jose Silva—the third man—was dead. As he was lifted out of the raft, he was motionless. Lifson just shook his head. It was then that I heard Foley mutter (more to himself than anyone else), "I'm getting too old for this." I disagreed.
As soon as they all were on board, the two survivors were rushed to sick bay and the capable hands of Chief Corpsman William J. Kremer, who sprang into action, administering first aid and medical care. For the next three hours, he was too busy reviving them even to take their temperatures. When he did, they were still registering only 94. He spent the entire night working on them, and by the morning of the 12th they finally were out of danger.
Soon after the rescue, the engine room informed the bridge that we were dangerously low on fuel. We had been at sea for 30 days (including Christmas and New Year's) and all the patrolling, the storm, and the search had taken their toll. This was reported to Commander, Eastern Area. The USCGC Barataria (WAVP-381) was ordered to relieve us and continue the search for the missing lifeboat. We were ordered to steam for Argentia, Newfoundland, where we could refuel for the trip home to New Bedford, Massachusetts.
The final transmission from the Escanaba to Commander, Eastern Area, read: "Survivors retrieved from raft . . . using swimmers, landing net, horse collar and line tended from ship's boat davit. Retrieval was hair raising but successful." The return message made everyone on board smile, including the normally taciturn Foley. It read: ". . . together with your efforts, all in extremely heavy weather, reflect great credit upon the Coast Guard. Well done, Admiral I. J. Stevens, U.S. Coast Guard."
On the 13th the two survivors were up and about. Our crew had supplied them with fresh clothing, which—although much too big—was nonetheless clean and dry. We then took up a collection among ourselves, so the survivors could acquire new gear in Argentia for their trip to St. John's, where they would be met by Lieutenant (junior grade) M. R. Dumas, Coast Guard Information Officer, the Spanish Consul, and an agent from the Kerr Steamship Lines.
Finally, Chief Kremer learned from the survivors that the raft had overturned ten times. And each time it upended, they righted it, pulling Jose Silva back on board. They had started out with nine men, on board and clinging to the sides.
One of our officers said it best: "It was one hell of a storm!"
Three ships sent out distress signals from the storm area. Two of them, the Monte Palomares and the Lampsis, sank. The Monte Palomares lost 32 men; the Lampsis, none. The third ship, the Polish freighter K. I. Galcynski, was adrift 700 miles north of Bermuda but was in no danger. A tug towed the Polish ship to Halifax, Nova Scotia.
The missing lifeboat was never found. On 15 January 1966, the search officially was terminated.
Mr. Carney is a former Coast-Guardsman and now a freelance writer living in Minnesota.