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

  1. Tamara Villaverde says:

    I’ve just found this chronicle about the accident where my grandfather died.
    He was a crewmember of the “Esso Bruseels”. He left two children and wife. I’ve never knew him, but he will always be in our memories.

  2. Jarrod Cavicchi says:

    I am now Captain of the Chemical Pioneer, the ex Sea Witch stern and bridge are still trading today. We happen to be back in Brooklyn Shipyard now for bi-annual repairs again.

  3. Jhonie says:

    My dad was also one of the survivors, he was on the SS Esso Brussels, thanks to the many rescue workers and every one that was bringing in the the people who could swim away from those blazing flames he survived and was able to meet my mom and father 4 great children. Thanks a again

  4. Janie Spears says:

    My Dad was one of the survivors of this crash. He was on the Sea Witch when it crashed. I remember the smell of his belongings, the soot he would cough up for years and years and the miracle that occurred that saved him when a helicopter cleared smoke enough for a fireboat to see men waving for help. I thank all the brave firefighers that day and know from first-hand experience how devasting this crash was and how it impacted the lives of so many.

  5. Ralph says:

    As a USCG Marine Inspector this story/tragedy still to this date comes up during many of our training sessions

  6. Leah says:

    Wow, that is great. Thanks for the comment Dennis!

  7. Dennis Youland says:

    SS Sea Witch, built at Bath Iron Works, Bath,Maine was the very first ship I worked on in 1968 . BIW construction hull # 354. It is visibly DIFFERENT than it’s following sister ships, by the shorter smoke stack ! One of the last steam powered cargo vessels to be built at BIW. Boasted deck machinery made by the HYDE WINDLASS Co., who was bought and closed by BIW in 1972. My father worked for HYDE WINDLASS for over 40 years….Si far, I have worked for BIW for over 44 years !

  8. Leah says:

    Thanks for the correction Carolina. I will make that edit! Glad that you found this article, and thanks for re-posting.

  9. Thanks for this report. I’ve long wanted more info on this tragedy. We’ll re-post this.

    One spelling correction to the Trezza interview which will help you find more info in the future. The second Red Hook yard would be “Bushey’s” (not Bushes) short for Ira S. Bushey & Sons, the original homeport of our vessel, the tanker MARY A. WHALEN.

  10. John Baker says:

    thanks for this interesting article. My mother’s brother, William LaLiberte was one of the merchant marines about the Sea Witch who was killed in this accident.

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