Palm Beach, FL (Off Coast) Tankers Collide, Oct 1943
88 DIE IN FIRE -- EXPLOSION WHEN TANKERS COLLIDE.
ONLY 28 SURVIVORS OF TRAGEDY OFF FLORIDA COAST.
Palm Beach, Fla., Oct. 23 -- (AP) -- Two blacked-out tankers collided off the Florida Coast in the darkness Wednesday night and 88 men perished in the flames which spread from the explosion of one of the vessels laden with thousands of gallons of aviation gasoline.
The Navy permitted announcement of the disaster today after investigating salvage possibilities.
Some Leaped Overboard.
Twenty-eight merchant crewmen and members of Navy gun crews were saved, most of them leaping overboard as the flames whipped over the decks and spread out over the water.
Persons ashore heard the explosion and saw the towering flames and gave the alarm which sent Coast Guard craft racing to the scene.
One of the ships, northbound and riding low in the water with the weight of the gasoline, had 43 crewmen aboard, including seven naval gunners, and only seven men survived.
The other tanker, southbound in ballast, was manned by a crew of 73, including 25 gunners, and 21 reached safety.
Most of those on deck perished instantly.
CHRISTOPHER P. FINLEY, 28, of Miami, third assistant engineer aboard the empty tanker, as at his post at the time of the crash, as 10:50 p.m.
All Stayed At Posts.
"I knew something terrible had happened," he declared, "but every hand in the engine room stayed at his post, and that saved a lot of lives."
"Two explosions followed immediately. I cut off the engines and rushed topside. Forward and amidships were a holocaust. The forward magazines and gun turrents were exploding. I knew the aft magazines would go any minute. I jumped into the sea off the fantail."
Seaman JOSEPH S. O'BRIEN, of Indianapolis, member of a Navy gun crew aboard a Northbound tanker gave this account of the disaster:
"I was on watch about 10:50 p.m. as we rode Northward along the Gulf Stream."
"Suddenly I spotted another ship bearing down from the North. It appeared to be about 75 yards away. It looked as if it were going to pass us, but as the ship approached I saw it was going to be close."
"I turned and started for a telephone to report to the forward bridge, shouting as I ran to WALTER ATKINSON of Miami, another member of the gun crew."
"Before I got to the telephone, there was a crash."
"A terrific explosion followed, and I was blown about 10 feet across the deck. Regaining my feet, I raced through flames and jumped overboard off the stern. I guess I was the first one off the boat."
"I swam as fast as I could for awhile, and thought I was safe. Then I stopped to look back."
"Waves of flame were coming toward me on the water, and they almost caught me. Burning gasoline covered a huge area."
"I could hear a lot of screaming and yelling from the direction of both ships and I know a lot of the boys were trapped. It was awful."
"After I swam away from the flames I floated around until I found a lifeboat upside down. I crawled up on it and sat there until I was picked up by the Coast Guard."
The flaming hulls floated slowly Northward in the Gulf Stream. The empty, less seriously damaged, tanker ran aground. Salvage crews floated the vessel and towed it to port, with the dead still aboard. The Navy said it will be repaired, and will carry war goods again.
The laden tanker drifted almost 20 miles, burning so fiercely that it could not be approached. It struck bottom almost atop the hulk of a freighter sunk by enemy subs early in the war.
No one yet has boarded the ship but men on rescue craft reported they could see piles of burned bodies.
The masters of both ships and all except one of the Navy commissioned officers assisgned to the gun crews, were lost, the Navy reported.
Second Assistant Engineer EDWARD HETHINGTON, 28, of Charleston, aboard the empty tanker, said all lifeboats were burned and fell into the sea.
Emerging from the engine room, he related, "we had to run over a mass of charred bodies which almost blocked the port companionway."
Navy armed guard crew of the northbound ship.
WALLIS HALL ATKINSON, SM3C, Portland, Ore.
SAMUEL BERT STRINGER, S1C, Eloy, Arizona.
VERNAL FREDERICK TERRY, S1C, Dunkirk, O.
JOSEPH SYLVESTER O'BRIEN, S1C, Indianapolis.
ELVIN JAMES HOIER, S1C, Kennard, Neb.
Members of merchant crew of the northbound ship:
DUPRE DAVID, 40, 1st cook, Port Arthur, Texas.
MARSHALL BREAUX, 21, Messman, Port Arthur, Texas.
Navy armed guard gun crew of the southbound ship:
LT. (jg). IVAN V. MERRICK, USNR, Wellsville, Kansas.
JOHNNY GORDON WOMACK, S1C, USNR, Americus, Ga.
CALVIN EDWARD NORRIS, S1C, USNR. Sycamore, Ohio.
HARRY JUSTIN O'BRIEN, S1C, USNR, Alameda, Calif.
EUGENE CHARLES RANDONO, S1C, USNR, North Great Falls, Montana.
EDWARD HERMAN SEHER, JR., S1C, USNR, Burbank, Calif.
Members of merchant crew of the southbound ship:
WALLY L. BURBA, boatswain.
WM. GREENCORN, D. N. A. B.
ALBERT W. JOYCE, A. B.
A. ULBRICH, chief engineer, Hethington, La.
CHRISTOPHER FINLEY, second assistant.
BURTON ROAN, oiler.
OLAF NIELSEN, first assistant engineer.
E. V. RODRIQUEZ, steward.
JOHN E. MORROW, messman.
TIM E. HOWELL, messman.
G. C. IRVINE, wiper.
ROBERT E. GEHRKE, fireman.
MICHAEL PACINSKI, second pump.
JOHN L. DOLING, machinist.
Addresses of the merchant crewmen are not available here.
Panama City News-Herald Florida 1943-10-24