The strange saga of the two halves of the SS Fort Mercer

BACK STORY

March 15, 2009|By FREDERICK N. RASMUSSEN

"Many Brave Hearts Are Asleep in the Deep"

1897 sea chantey

The ferocious February nor'easter that severely disrupted Atlantic shipping more than a half-century ago nearly took the life of a Baltimore merchant mariner who was aboard a crippled oil tanker.

The gale that snapped the SS Pendleton in two off Cape Cod in the early morning hours of Feb. 18, 1952, inflicted a similar fate on another T-2 class tanker, the SS Fort Mercer, that was steaming some 30 miles southeast of Chatham, Mass.

The Pendleton, a Boston-bound tanker loaded with a cargo of kerosene and heating oil, separated at 5:50 a.m., leaving its crew adrift on the orphaned bow and stern sections. Failing circuit breakers made it impossible to send an SOS., and the fate of the officers and crew remained unknown to the outside world as they drifted amid 60-foot seas and 70-knot winds.

The 10,000-ton Fort Mercer, also filled with kerosene and fuel oil, had sailed from Norco, La., and was bound for Portland, Maine. Onboard were several dozen men, including quartermaster Louis D. Jomidad of Baltimore.

At 8 a.m., crewmen aboard the Fort Mercer reported hearing a snap and then seeing oil surfacing on the vessel's starboard side near the No. 5 cargo tank.

Sensing some urgency, Capt. Frederick C.C. Paetzel slowed the Fort Mercer and, because the ship's radio was still working, ordered the operator to notify the Coast Guard.

Survivors floating on the two halves of the Pendleton heard the Fort Mercer's distress call on their radio receiver, as Coast Guard cutters Eastwind and Unimak, 120 miles away near Nantucket, Mass., began steaming to the stricken Fort Mercer 's side.

At 10:30 a.m., came another crack.

Twenty minutes later, Paetzel ordered a message calling for nearby vessels to stand by for possible assistance.

It was 11:40 a.m. when a third crack reverberated throughout the ship.

This time, the crack was accompanied by a seam of parting steel that crawled up the starboard side just above the waterline, immediately causing oil to begin hemorrhaging from the No. 5 tank into the sea.

Like the ill-fated Pendleton, the Fort Mercer lunged and parted, leaving the bow section partially submerged, while the stern section floated free.

"It happened suddenly at 12:10 p.m.," Alanson S. Winn, a Fort Mercer crewman, told The New York Times. "It happened like that - there was a noise as though a ship had rammed us. Then she lifted out of the water like an elevator," he said. "She gave two jumps. And when she'd done that, she tore away."

Nine officers and crew were stranded on the bow section, while 34 crewmen were left aboard the stern.

While the bow section was powerless and its radio no longer operable, crewmen on the stern section discovered that they were still able to operate the ship's engines. They jockeyed it away to avoid a collision with the bow in the heaving seas.

The pilot of a Coast Guard PBY out of Air Station Salem searching for the Fort Mercer accidentally discovered the floating wreck of the Pendleton.

Cutters pounded their way through the howling storm to rescue the Fort Mercer's crew, an effort that took more than 20 hours before they were all safely off the vessel.

Five crewmen on the bow lost their lives, while four others, including the ship's skipper, were rescued from a life raft.

Less than 20 minutes after the last four men abandoned the bow, it capsized and was then sunk by a gun from the cutter Unimak, to avoid navigation interference.

Nine other crewmen chose to remain on the Fort Mercer's stern section with its cargo of oil, while others survivors were dropped off in Boston and Portland. "The 'stay-putters' had light and heat because the boilers and almost all the ship's machinery were in that section. There was plenty of food in the galley," reported The New York Times.

Three days after the disaster, Jomidad, who lived at 517 N. Washington St. in Baltimore, called his family from Boston.

It was the first word his wife and four children had that he was safe and had survived the disaster without incident.

"Knowing my husband was out there like that, maybe dead, was terrible," his wife told The Evening Sun. "For three nights I haven't been able to eat or sleep or even comb my hair."

She told the newspaper that while his ship had been torpedoed during World War II, it was the first time he had been shipwrecked.

The stern, which had drifted some 40 miles from the bow, was picked up by salvage tugs Foundation Josephine and the M. Moran, which towed it to Newport, R.I., eventually through Long Island Sound to New York.

The strange fate of the Fort Mercer does not end here. Its owner, Trinidad Corp., had the stern towed to the Todd Shipyards Corp.'s Galveston, Texas, yard, where a new bow was attached to the stern section.

When the 545-foot re-christened vessel, the San Jacinto, left the yard in 1953, it was 40 feet longer.

But bad luck continued to haunt what was left of the Fort Mercer.

As it steamed 40 miles off Virginia in 1964, an explosion blew the San Jacinto in two during a routine cleaning of its tanks.

One member of its crew of 35 died aboard a rescue vessel, and, in an eerily reminiscent replay of the 1952 disaster, crew members remained on board the stern section as it was towed to the Newport News (Va.) Shipbuilding and Drydock Co. yard.

The ship emerged a third time, in 1965, not as one ship, but two: the Pasadena and the Seatrain Maryland.

The unlucky F ort Mercer saga finally ended in a Bangladesh shipyard, where the Seatrain Maryland was broken up in 1983.

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