DRAMA ON THE DELAWARE
Over the years there have been many dramas enacted on or near the Delaware River and Bay. Having grown up along the southern reaches of the river, close to where it becomes a bay, I was always drawn to the river and enjoyed watching the ship traffic. The history of the area has always been one of my very favorite subjects. The abundant variety of ship traffic on that waterway, rushing up and down the river with all kinds of goods aboard, was a source of wonder and mystery. Who drove the ships? Where were they headed? What did they carry? Several times, when I was awakened in the middle of the night by massive explosions on the water, and saw flames licking the sky, a question arose; what happened out there to cause the tragedy?
The narration of the notated events in this paper has been taken from admiralty proceedings adjudicated in the Federal 3rd Circuit Court, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The proceedings are given in entirety as they were made available, without editorial comment or change.
There is, on average, one serious marine casualty somewhere in the world, each day of the year. The consequences of those accidents can be severe, in immediate costs, lost revenue and the costs involved in litigation.
Preventing an accident is infinitely preferable to having one. While good ship design, formal safety assessments, regulations, procedures and training will do much to ensure a vessel is safe, accidents can and do happen at any time. In later years the question of what caused those accidents often recurred in my mind. I wanted to find out why there had been so many tragic maritime incidents along the lower reaches of the Delaware River, since it was an area with which I had closely interacted for years.
Human error often features as a cause of marine accidents, and sometimes those errors are made by people divorced in time and distance from the actual event. Although no vessel can ever expect to be risk free from accidents, human errors tend to escalate if insufficient care is taken with how the crew is selected, looked after, motivated, treated on board and trained. The effects of human fatigue and stress cannot be overlooked as potential precursors to accidents.
A hazardous transportation study done in December 2002 by David P. Rocca, at the University of Delaware, provided this information: “About one-third of the vessels that arrive annually at ports along the Delaware River are carrying crude petroleum, petroleum product and chemicals. About 11% of the total United States crude oil imports enter this area. Between the years 1974 and 1998 there were 28 significant water accidents on the Delaware River and Bay involving spills and fires.”
Earlier years saw many more incidents, not all involving either spills or fires. As will become tragically apparent, many people have given up their lives on the lower reaches of the Delaware. There have been deeds of remarkable, unheralded heroism. Some instances of momentary lapse of judgment occurred out there with horrible consequences, and sometimes just plain bad luck played a part in turning what might have been a routine day aboard ship or boat into a nightmare.
There has been drama for centuries along this waterway: the initial European discovery of the Delaware Bay by Henry Hudson in 1609, the Dutch colonization at Zwaanendael (Lewes, DE) and their subsequent quarrels with the Swedish colonists at New Sweden (Wilmington, DE), skirmishes with the Lenni-Lenape, Iroquois, Cherokee and Narwahro Indians who inhabited the area, the dispossession of the Lenni-Lenape Indians, the numerous battles fought there during the Revolutionary War, etc., the loss of many ships carrying early immigrants, treasure, etc. with events still occurring along those watery paths right up to the present day. I’ve chosen to only recount events of which I personally had knowledge, during my years growing up along the southeastern shores of New Jersey.
The events in this account begin in 1950, when I was eight years-old and just beginning to be allowed to roam the sandy beaches of Salem County without adult supervision. The older of my two brothers and I would often spend the day watching the ferries come and go from the Pennsville terminal, or roaming the shoreline looking for objects of interest. The constant ship traffic was always in our consciousness and we delighted in finding seats on sometimes tar-blotted rip-rap or downed tree trunks to watch it. It was also fun watching the river swallow up the sun at the end of a long summer day. At those times we didn’t wonder about the people whose trips up and down that river hadn’t ended well. That thought came later when I became a river traveler and a blue water sailor myself.