Just as airline tragedies are at times blamed on pilot error, so are shipwrecks occasionally the captain’s fault. Such was the case of the side-wheel steamship General Slocum that caught fire on the East River in 1904. Its captain, William H. Van Schaick, had two choices of possibly saving his ship and its passengers. Unfortunately, he made the wrong decision, resulting in more than 1,000 deaths and the loss of his vessel.
The United State Coast Guard (USCG) has made many courageous rescues since its inception in 1915 and remains a stalwart military force. Although it doesn’t garner the attention or glamour heaped upon our Air Force, Navy or Marines, the USCG continues its “blue collar” workload with little fanfare.
When warships sink, it’s usually during a battle where they’re shelled, torpedoed, bombed or rammed and heroic deeds are recorded in history books. But not so heroic, and surely distressful for the captains, is when they have to scuttle their ships.
How many times have we come upon the word “purported” when perusing or researching stories about sunken or buried treasures? The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines “purport” as: “to imply, profess or claim, often falsely.”
In 1961, when divers excavated the hull of the CSS Neuse, a Confederate Civil War ironclad gunboat burned and scuttled in 1865 in the Neuse River, Kinston, North Carolina, they didn’t know it would be so massive.
He drops eight small pieces of silver into my hand, smiles and says, “Two bits, four bits, six bits, a dollar.” Then he shows me a one ounce eight reale (royal) coin, better known as a peso or piece of eight, minted in New Spain in the 1700s. “Sometimes they were cut into eight pieces, like a pie, in order to make change,” he says.
When Bonnie Buckler and John Santulli settled into a waterfront table for lunch at the Ocean Grill Restaurant, Vero Beach, Florida, they spotted a strange object offshore. It was only about a quarter of a mile away and at first appeared to be some sort of a marine creature. But it wasn’t moving and barely broke the surface, its shadowy outline looming in the clear blue water.
The disappearance of two English exploratory ships in the polar regions of northern Canada in 1848 was always a puzzle. Some called it a mystery while others simply dubbed it a “horrible tragedy.” Under the command of Sir John Franklin, the HMS Erebus and HMS Terror—converted from warships to polar research vessels—were assigned to try and complete a northwest passage to Asia, record magnetic fields, and collect plant and animal life.
When vessels go down without a trace—no how, what, when or where recorded—they become “mystery ships.” Such was the case of the SS Yongala, a stately passenger and cargo steamship that disappeared March 24, 1911, off the coast of Queensland, Australia.
Murphy’s Law: “Anything that can go wrong will go wrong” is an old adage aptly applied to the sinking of the passenger liner SS Vestris, November 12, 1928. There was a late SOS; bungled lifeboat launchings; a negligent crew; an over-loaded cargo hold and nearby vessels without radios. In addition, poor judgment and neglect became major culprits in Murphy’s mandate.