Tragedy at Sea: The Sea Witch and Esso Brussels crash in 1973

While going through the Frank J. Trezza Seatrain Shipbuilding collection, I got intrigued by one of the images of a very damaged container ship named the Sea Witch.  This led me to find out more about the ship and what happened.

On June 2, 1973, just after midnight, the SS C.V. Sea Witch, built by Bath Iron Works was leaving New York harbor when the ship lost steering control and collided into the fully loaded tanker SS Esso Brussels, right under the Verrazano Bridge.  The 31,000 barrels of crude oil released from three ruptured tanks ignited and the resulting fire engulfed both ships.  A total of 16 crewmembers and two captains died in the tragedy.  Nearby beaches were polluted and damage to the ships and cargo amounted to about $23 million.

Sea Witch Esso Brussels Crash, 1973, Image no. 730602031; Associated Press Photos Archive.

This article found on the professional mariner website sheds some light into personal accounts of what happened right before the collision and afterward.  Most of the Esso Brussels crew was asleep at this hour of the night.  The mate standing watch did not have much notice, and the crew was alerted with only a two minute warning before impact.  The Sea Witch’s bow rammed into the side of Esso Brussels, and the fire of flaming oil began instantaneously, spreading rapidly.  When the fire boat firefighters arrived minutes after the collision the firefighters could not tell that two ships were involved, because both ships were enveloped in flames.

I also searched for newspaper coverage of the accident from when it happened.  The New York Times had interviewed Albert Ameida, chief engineer of the Sea Witch, after the accident.  The then 53 year-old, a veteran of the sea was in the engine room of the Sea Witch when it sliced into the tanker Esso Brussels and instantly was enveloped in flame.  Mr. Almeida, obeying an instinct he cannot explain, reversed the ship’s engine; the act pulled the Sea Witch back from the pool of fire and made survival of crew members possible (Montgomery, P. L. (1973, June 03). ‘I knew this was my day to die.’ says heroic engineer who saved his shipmates . The New York Times).

The National Transportation Safety Board determined that the probable cause was a mechanical failure in the steering system of the Sea Witch and the lack of adequate and timely action by the crew to control their ship after the failure occurred.   A Department of Transportation Coast Guard report gives very specific details on the accident and technical specifications. This report was the results from the findings by the U.S. Coast Guard Marine Board of Investigations.  The report explains that steering systems on ships are designed in anticipation of certain types of failure, and appropriate alarms and counter-measures are provided.  From the report, “the helmsman on the Sea Witch detected a steering malfunction not because of any alarm or change in the indicator lights on the steering stand, but because he could not bring the ship to the desired heading.”  This means that no one on the bridge had any clues about the malfunction to help them restore steering control in a hurry or to suggest whether the malfunction was correctable on the bridge. When the collision happened, the Sea Witch bored about 40 feet into the hull of the Esso Brussels while suffering only about 20 feet of damage to its own bow.  If the bow of the Sea Witch had not penetrated the hull of the Esso Brussels, there would have been no fire, pollution, or loss of life.  A court case which followed the accident cleared Bath Iron Works of any charges for the failed steering system on Sea Witch, which caused the accident.

In 1977, the Sea Witch was brought into Dry Dock number 3 at the Brooklyn Navy Yard with the intention to rebuild the ship. I recently contacted Frank Trezza to see what his memory was of Seatrain Shipbuilding’s involvement with repairing the ship. Frank confirmed that the Sea Witch was at the Brooklyn Navy Yard and was worked on by Seatrain Shipbuilding.

“The forward deck house which included the deck house was cut free and placed on the rear house. The burners cut completely around the outside of the hull just about 6 inches forward of the engine room bulkhead. The dry dock was filled with water and the section forward of the engine room was towed out of the dry dock. No other work was done on her by Seatrain Shipbuilding, and then she was towed out of the Navy Yard and brought to Red Hook (either Todd’s Yard or Bushey’s Yard), where she stayed for years.”

Seatrain shipbuilding had a $10 million dollar contract to turn the Sea Witch into a stainless steel chemical tanker.  After many years the engine room section with the forward house on top was towed to Newport News in Virginia, it was here that Shipbuilding turned Sea Witch into a chemical carrier.

There is also a chapter in Mr. Trezzza’s book  “Brooklyn Steel-Blood Tenacity” on the Sea Witch.   Frank Trezza took these images of the damaged ship in 1977.

Sea Witch Ship in Dry Dock #3, v1988.21.245; Frank J. Trezza Seatrain Shipbuilding collection, 1988.016; Brooklyn Historical Society.

Damaged Sea Witch ship, 1977, v1988.21.236; Frank J. Trezza Seatrain Shipbuilding collection, 1988.016; Brooklyn Historical Society.

Damaged Sea Witch ship, 1977, v1988.21.227; Frank J. Trezza Seatrain Shipbuilding collection, 1988.016; Brooklyn Historical Society.

Damaged bow of the Sea Witch ship, 1977, v1988.21.225; Frank J. Trezza Seatrain Shipbuilding collection, 1988.016; Brooklyn Historical Society.

Interested in doing your own research using BHS’s collection? Visit BHS’s Othmer Library Wed-Fri, 1:00-5:00 p.m.


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12 Responses to Tragedy at Sea: The Sea Witch and Esso Brussels crash in 1973

  1. Is this site a virus free? My computer give me an alarm

  2. Geoffrey J. Ginos says:

    From 1984 until it closed its doors in 2002, I was a law partner at the preeminent New York admiralty law firm, Burlingham Underwood & Lord. From 1978 to about 1981, as a young associate, I assisted one of its very capable senior partners, Kenneth Volk, in the defense of SEA WITCH’s builders, the Bath Iron Works shipyard (“BIW”), against claims arising out of this collision brought by Farrell Lines (successor in interest to its original owners, American Export Lines) against BIW and the Sperry Rand Corporation (“Sperry”), alleging that the disaster was caused by defendants’ improper design of the vessel’s steering system.

    I conducted all of the document discovery, depositions and trial work relating to her steering failure and so am intimately familiar with the causes of that failure. Ken handled all of the navigation issues at trial.

    Steering commands were transmitted electrically from SEA WITCH’s bridge to her steering gear room by two independent control systems which led to and powered two Sperry rotary power units (“RPUs”) in her steering gear room. At this point however, the two RPUs were joined by a roller chain which drove a single mechanical linkage consisting of one control rod with a U-joint at each of its ends. The control rod was thus linked to the steering ram mechanism. Rotational forces were transmitted mechanically between the U-Joints and the control rod by means of captured half-moon shaped Woodruff keys pinned into the rod. This design insured that these keys could not fall out during operation. Shortly before the disaster, however, one of these Woodruff keys was discovered to be worn and loose, probably as a result of AEL’s improper maintenance and repairs over the years. While calling in NY port to load cargo, AEL hired a NY ship repair contractor (Eugene Bond) to repair/replace the worn key, but, due to time pressure exerted by AEL on Bond in order to sail the ship as soon as possible, instead of machining a new key and keyway so as to retain the original trapped key design, the original keyway was simply milled out and a straight key was inserted. The actual repair might have been carried out correctly but for the fact that it was carried out by Bond’s young and inexperienced son, who was unfamiliar with the design. In marked contrast, Eugene Bond was very knowledgeable about it since he had worked for years at BIW and knew how to do the repair properly. Loctite was applied by the younger Bond to keep the straight key from slipping out, but, this measure and the new jury-rigged design was unsafe and wholly inadequate as proven when the key slipped out and the mechanical linkage became ineffective, resulting in a complete loss of steering control at the worst possible moment – the ship was turning right when steering was lost and instead of straightening its rudder to pass under the Verrazano bridge, continued in its deadly turn to starboard and rammed the loaded tanker Esso Brussels anchored at Stapleton anchorage.

    At trial’s end, Judge Tenney ruled that BIW bore no responsibility for the disaster, which he said was caused by the improper design changes made to BIW’s steering system by AEL’s repair. (Sperry had settled with AEL for several million dollars just before trial.)

    The full decision can be found here:

    Geoff Ginos

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