by Johnathan Thayer, Archivist
based on an oral history interview conducted by Jennifer Frèmont
Last year, shortly after the Seamen’s Church Institute (SCI) put out a call for participants in the American Merchant Marine Veterans Oral History Project, I received a phone message from Eugene Kelly, an alumnus of Massachusetts Maritime Academy living in Abington, MA. Gene told me he had a story he thought we might be interested in. Back in 1983, his ship, the SS Marine Electric, carrying coal from Norfolk, VA, encountered a massive storm off the coast of Virginia and sank. Gene, sailing as third mate, was one of just three survivors. Thirty-one of his shipmates died.
The tragedy of the SS Marine Electric prompted a thorough investigation that led to widespread industry reforms regarding safety at sea. More immediately, it left dozens of family members and friends to mourn for loved ones lost at sea. Gene recalls his own family’s reaction upon hearing news that he had survived:
The report on the news was that there were no survivors. So my family was notified that I had died. At ten o’clock in the morning … my first opportunity to pick up the phone, I called my ex-wife, and it was like a voice from the grave.
The trouble started soon after the Marine Electric left harbor in Norfolk on February 9 in the midst of a moderate storm. Overnight the storm worsened significantly and intensified into the next day. After responding to a distress broadcast from a sinking fishing vessel, the Marine Electric found itself rolling in 40foot seas. Not long after midnight, the captain summoned Gene and all other officers to the bridge to inform them that waves had begun to break over the bow of the ship and across the deck. With the ship’s pumps failing, the Captain put in a call for help to the Coast Guard.
By the time the conversation ended with the Coast Guard—only a matter of minutes describing what we’re doing, where we are, who we are—the situation worsened to the point where the ocean was now coming all the way back to the house … so the front 500 or so feet of the ship was invisible—completely under water. And the condition of the ship just lent itself to a catastrophe at that point.
Soon thereafter, the Captain gave orders to abandon ship. Gene prepared his own life vest and gathered charts from his room before collecting life rings on the deck and tripping the distress beacon. With the ship listing heavily to starboard, Gene and his shipmates were unable to lower the lifeboats before the ship capsized. Left with no other options, the crew began to jump.
Gene found himself in the icy water looking up at the ship’s smokestack as it nearly fell on top of him. Miraculously, Gene survived, enduring several hours in the water clinging to a life ring while battling frostbite and the onset of hypothermia. By the time a Coast Guard helicopter arrived to rescue Gene and the other two survivors, he had lost eleven pounds, ingested gallons of oil, and witnessed the deaths of several of his shipmates as they succumbed to hypothermia.
The tragedy of the Marine Electric did not keep Gene from going back to sea. After an 18month leave, Gene worked on the SS Energy Independence and later went on to teach occupational health and safety. He was invited to speak before Congress, giving testimony before the Committee on Merchant Marine and Fisheries that led to sweeping industry reforms, including the adoption of survival suits and the decommissioning of WWII-era T2 tankers. Gene was also invited to a demonstration on board a Coast Guard cutter of the Coast Guard Helicopter Rescue Swimmer Program, which formed in direct response to the Marine Electric’s sinking. Gene gave speeches at Coast Guard events on the lessons learned from his experiences on the Marine Electric.
Gene continues to tell his story, delivering speeches at Coast Guard events and participating in SCI’s AMMV Oral History Project in hopes that it will continue to change things for the better:
A lot of things happened as a result—a lot of good things. A lot of good guys died that night. Like I say, if my being part of this [the AMMV Oral History Project] is going to bring some closure to it, all well and good.