In the early morning hours of Feb. 12, 1983, an old ship was laboring in a winter gale, making little headway in the North Atlantic 30 miles off the coastal barrier islands of Virginia.
For hours, waves, some of them 35 feet high, smashed over the bow. Her five hatch covers were worn thin and crudely patched with putty and tape. Her deck was rusted and cracked. The pumping system to remove water from her holds was inoperative. A hole in her hull had been patched with a cement plug and the bottom of a coffee can. At 38, she was a nautical relic, twice the normal retirement age of the world's merchant vessels.
Aboard was a crew of 34 Americans. In her holds was 24,800 tons of coal. Her name was the Marine Electric, and her fate was sealed.
By any safety standard, the Marine Electric should not have been at sea. But she was, because government maritime policies had made it profitable for her to be there.
At position 37 degrees 53 minutes north, 74 degrees 46 minutes west in the pre-dawn darkness of 4:10 a.m., she jerked just a bit, then there came "the sound of the water going out of a bathtub, amplified a billion times." Her whistle screamed abandon ship. Crewmen jumped or fell through the frigid air into the icy water as she rolled over on her side.
When help came about two hours later, only two officers and one deckhand were still alive. Thirty-one men were dead, and the Marine Electric was lost.
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