Shipwreck That Changed Coast Guard Forever
Coast Guard Petty Officer 2nd Class Corinne Zilnicki
July 9, 2022
When the clock tolled 12 a.m., February 12,
1983, the 605-foot cargo ship Marine Electric trekked northward 30
miles off Virginia’s Eastern Shore, plowing slowly through the
gale-force winds and waves stirred up by a winter storm.
Artwork of the Marine Electric shipwreck and the
incident’s lasting impact on the Coast Guard. The converted
WWII-era ship capsized 30 miles off the Virginia coast on
February 12, 1983, and brought about drastic changes in the
Coast Guard, including revamped marine safety procedures and
the implementation of rescue swimmers. (Image created by USA
Patriotism! from U.S. Coast Guard illustration by Petty
Officer 2nd Class Corinne Zilnicki.)
able-bodied seaman relieved the watch and peered forward, noticing
for the first time that the ship’s bow seemed to be riding unusually
low in the water. Dense curls of green ocean rushed over the bow,
some of them arching 10 feet over the deck before crashing back
down. The crew had been battling 25-foot waves for hours, but until
now, the bow had bucked and dipped as normal.
Now it seemed
only to dip.
Over the next two hours, the waves intruded with
increasing vigor. The entire foredeck was swallowed in six feet of
water. The main deck was completely awash.
At 2:30 a.m., the
ship’s master, Phillip Corl, summoned his chief mate, Robert Cusick,
to the bridge and shared his fears: the bow was settling, they were
taking on too much water, and the crew was in real trouble.
At 2:51 a.m., the captain made the first radio distress call to the
“I seem to be taking on water forward,” Corl
said. “We need someone to come out and give us some assistance, if
By the time assistance arrived, the Marine
Electric had listed, rolled violently to starboard, and capsized,
hurling most of its 34 crew into the 37-degree water. Chaos ensued.
Cusick surfaced with a gasp, managed to get his bearings, and
spotted a partially-submerged lifeboat nearby. After swimming
through towering waves for 30 minutes, he pulled himself into the
swamped boat and started thrashing his legs to stay warm.
“All the time I kept looking out and yelling out, ‘lifeboat here,’
just continually yelling out to keep myself going,” the chief mate
said. “Then I waited and prayed for daylight to come.”
Coast Guard had long since dispatched an HH-3F Pelican helicopter
crew from Air Station Elizabeth City, N.C., and directed the crews
of several cutters to the Marine Electric’s position, but the
tumultuous weather conditions slowed the rescuers’ progress.
Defying a blinding snow storm, a Coast Guard HH-3 "Pelican" helicopter searches for distressed mariners off Elizabeth City, North Carolina. The beacon of a lighthouse fights to pierce the blanket of white. The HH-3 was the last of the Coast Guard amphibious helicopters. The medium range, twin engine amphibian carried a sophisticated rotary wing avionics package, cruised at 120 knots, and was capable of reaching 142 knots. It had a normal crew of pilot, co-pilot, navigator, flight mechanic, and could carry up to twenty passengers. (Image
created by USA Patriotism! from U.S. Coast Guard
illustration by Petty Officer 2nd Class Corinne Zilnicki.)
Naval Air Station Oceana had to recall available personnel before
launching a helicopter crew, including rescue swimmer Petty Officer
2nd Class James McCann.
At 5:20 a.m., the Coast Guard
helicopter crew was the first to arrive on scene. They expected to
find the Marine Electric’s sailors tucked into lifeboats and rafts,
but instead, they found a blinking sea of strobe lights, empty
lifeboats, and bodies strewn below.
The Navy aircrew arrived
and deployed McCann, who tore through the oil-slicked waves,
searching for survivors. He managed to recover five unresponsive
sailors before hypothermia incapacitated him.
The Coast Guard
crew scoured the southern end of the search area and discovered one
man, Paul Dewey, alone in a life raft. They dropped the rescue
basket so he could clamber inside, then hoisted him into the
helicopter. About 30 yards away, they spotted Eugene Kelly, the
ship’s third mate, clinging to a life ring, and lowered the basket
to retrieve him.
Cusick remained huddled in his lifeboat
until the sailors aboard the Berganger, a Norwegian merchant vessel
whose crew was helping search the area, sighted him and notified the
Coast Guard. The helicopter crew retrieved him in the rescue basket,
then took off for Salisbury, Md., to bring the three survivors to
Peninsula Regional Medical Center.
Meanwhile, more Coast
Guard and Navy rescue crews converged on the scene to search for
Coast Guard Capt. Mont Smith, the operations
officer at Air Station Elizabeth City, piloted a second Pelican
helicopter through turbulent headwinds for over an hour in order to
reach the site.
He and his crew scanned the debris field
below for signs of life. The people they saw were motionless, and it
was difficult to determine whether they were simply too hypothermic
to move, or deceased. Smith spotted one man and hovered over him,
squinting through the whipping snow, trying to decide what to do.
“We all felt helpless,” Smith said. “There was no way to know if
the man was dead or alive. We had to try something.”Artwork of the
night the Marine Electric shipwreck and the incident’s lasting
impact on the Coast Guard. The converted WWII-era ship capsized 30
miles off the Virginia coast on Feb. 12, 1983, and brought about
drastic changes in the Coast Guard, including revamped marine safety
procedures and the implementation of rescue swimmers. (U.S. Coast
Guard illustrations by Petty Officer 2nd Class Corinne Zilnicki)
Petty Officer 2nd Class Greg Pesch, the avionics electrical
technician aboard the helicopter, volunteered to go down on the
hoist cable. After some deliberation, Smith agreed.
A Coast Guard HH-3 "Pelican" helicopter lowers a rescue
basket at night to the Marine Electric shipwreck. The converted WWII-era ship capsized 30 miles off the Virginia coast on Feb. 12, 1983, and brought about drastic changes in the Coast Guard, including revamped marine safety procedures and the implementation of rescue swimmers. (U.S. Coast Guard illustrations by Petty Officer 2nd Class Corinne Zilnicki)(Image created by USA Patriotism! from U.S. Coast Guard
illustration by Petty Officer 2nd Class Corinne Zilnicki.)
descent in the rescue basket was a harrowing one.
world seemed to be churning,” Smith said. “I struggled to maintain a
smooth hoist, but I know it was erratic.”
Once in the water,
Pesch grappled with the basket, trying to hold it steady as he
guided the unresponsive man inside. It took several attempts, and
then he scrambled into the basket himself and ascended back to the
helicopter alongside the victim.
The aircrew spotted another
potential survivor, and although Pesch attempted to descend again,
the hoist cable spooled back on itself on the drum. The crew was
forced to abort their mission and departed for nearby Salisbury
Airport. There, paramedics pronounced the man they had pulled from
the water was dead on arrival.
Dewey, Kelly, and Cusick were
the only men pulled from the ocean alive that morning. Their 31
shipmates had either succumbed to hypothermia or drowned.
told, Coast Guard, Navy, and merchant vessel crews recovered 24
bodies from the scene of the capsizing. Seven were never found. It
is likely the ship’s engineers were trapped belowdecks when the
“Throughout Coast Guard history, the
missions of the service have been written in blood,” said Dr.
William Thiesen, historian, Coast Guard Atlantic Area. “Such was the
case with the loss of the Marine Electric. This tragic event led to
stricter marine safety regulations and the establishment of the
Coast Guard’s premiere rescue swimmer program.”
incident itself served as the catalyst for the major changes to the
Coast Guard and maritime community at large, the rigorous efforts of
Coast Guard Capt. Domenic Calicchio brought the necessity for such
changes into sharper focus.
Calicchio was one of the three
marine safety officers charged with investigating the capsizing and
sinking of the Marine Electric. The board of inquiry launched their
investigation July 25, 1984, and examined every aspect of the
WWII-era cargo ship, its upkeep, the events leading up to its
demise, and the Coast Guard’s rescue efforts on that morning.
The investigation revealed that although the Marine Electric had
been recently inspected several times by both the American Bureau of
Shipping and the Coast Guard, marine inspectors had failed to note
several discrepancies or recommend needed repairs. Investigators
concluded that the casualty had most likely been caused by
inadequate cargo hatches and deck plating, which allowed the
crashing waves to flood the vessel’s forward spaces.
Calicchio felt the Coast Guard needed to revamp its marine safety
procedures and demand more of maritime companies, but more
importantly, that the Coast Guard needed to demand more of itself.
His push for reform resulted in several additions to the Coast
Guard’s marine safety protocol, including guidance on hatch cover
inspections, and new requirements for enclosed lifeboats and their
launching systems, for ships’ owners to provide crews with cold
water survival suits, and for flooding alarms to be installed in
unmanned spaces on vessels.
The Coast Guard also tightened
its inspections of ships that were 20 years old or older, which led
to the near-immediate scrapping of 70 similar WWII-era vessels.
“Calicchio embodied the service’s core values of honor, respect,
and devotion to duty,” said Thiesen. “He championed marine safety
and pursued the truth even at the risk of his career of a Coast
While the Coast Guard changed many policies
to make a safer marine environment after the the sinking of the
Marine Electric, the service continues to make improvements on its
marine safety program today. By 2025, it is estimated that the
demand for waterborne commerce worldwide will more than double. The
Coast Guard has published its Maritime Commerce Strategic Outlook in
preparation for the increasing demand.
The Marine Electric
shipwreck also served as the genesis of another crucial development:
the Coast Guard rescue swimmer program, which was established in
1984. The program’s physical fitness standards, training and
organizational structure were developed over a five-year
implementation period, and in March of 1985, Air Station Elizabeth
City became the first unit to receive rescue swimmers.
first life was saved two months later.
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