Old Limbs, Young Limbs

Old Limbs, Young Limbs

The house on Pittsfield Street, In Pennsville, New Jersey, to which my family moved when I was quite young, was a two-story frame house with a high-peaked roof. There was a big attic in which we’d play when the weather was bad. When the weather was nice, there was a wide, shady porch on two sides of the house, where we’d sometimes sit and read. More often, though, the four of us kids could be found in the seven huge old apple trees that lined the back of the yard. There were other trees and shrubs in the yard that provided sustenance for the senses; a very tall cone-shaped Bartlett pear tree which provided baskets of delicious fruit every year; a fragrant privet bush which had never felt a pair of pruning shears stood against the back of the house, rubbing up against it for company; there were also two cherry trees that yielded Springtime bounty in the form of sour fruits destined for delicious pies. The apple trees were our favorites, though, in all seasons of the year.
Trees, as most children who grow up in small towns or in rural areas know, are perfect for all kinds of childhood activities. First and foremost, they are good for climbing, They lend their old limbs to children with young growing limbs a perfect structure on which to perfect acrobatic skills. They also provide a place in which to hide in troubling times. Many of our trees provided fruit which was free for the taking, even if it was wormy or sour. The apple trees provided a canopy under which it was possible to place a tent, or a blanket on which to lie and read a book in peace. Springtime brought a bounty of new growth and beautiful fragrant blossoms. That was always a welcome change from winter’s bare storm-damaged limbs. Abundant summertime shade was found in their shelter, a welcome refuge from hot sunshine.
The trees behind that house on Pittsfield Street served all those purposes. They also became imaginary ships on windy days, with their higher branches being tossed about like a vessel at sea. It was possible to see afar from those tree-tops, so one could spy out neighborhood activities without oneself being seen. It was possible, if one was very careful, but daring at the same time, to traverse the entire line of seven apple trees without touching the ground. There were three trees where that was a dangerous proposition because the spaces between them were only covered by small interlacing branches that wouldn’t hold a lot of weight.
The older of my two brothers became quite good at covering that entire leafy route in the apple tree-tops, but one day he had a mishap. Perhaps one of the fragile, teeny limbs broke, or perhaps he didn’t place his feet quite right. At any rate, he came crashing down, about 20-feet down, and had the wind knocked out of him. The rest of us, all three of us, were sure he was dead, but not one of us ran for help. We weren’t supposed to be climbing the trees and knew we’d get in trouble if we were found out. It was a mightily relieved circle around him when he finally caught his breath and was able to get up. First – he was somehow O.K., no broken limbs on him! Second – we weren’t going to get in trouble – this time anyway. Up, up and away we all went again, with him in the lead, enjoying childhood fancies in the tops of those old apple trees.


Drama on the Delaware, intro


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.