I have been holding back on this, and it has been a long time since I told this story. Even though I learned the truth behind what happened on the OMI Yukon, it still weighs heavily on my conscience when ever I recall the event.
Summertime. 1986. I don’t recall the month. I sat in the hall in Wilmington looking at a job being posted by Jesse Solis. 2 watch standing jobs on a tanker. It wasn’t so much the ship that intrigued me. It was on the 6 Pac run between Hawaii and coastal California. Oops, rewind: the year now is 1975. I was flying to Tampa, Fla. to climb on board my first deep sea job strait from the bungalow in Piney Point. The Potomac was tied up abreast of a tanker called the Aguilla. little did I know that tanker was to be renamed the OMI Yukon. I had to go across the Aguilla to get to the Potomac.
Fast forward again: 1986. Here I am standing watch on the Yukon. This tanker was a weird one. With one Strait tube boiler and one fire tube (or mistakenly referred to as a Scotch boiler. Scotch was in fact a company that made fire tube boilers on the Great Lakes). After taking on fuel in Barbaras Point, we set sail for Korea to lay up in the ship yard. 2 important but insignificant things to keep in mind:
1- The bunker barge used jet fuel in those days instead of just compressed air to clean out the hose after fueling. The barge people way over-estimated the amount of jet fuel needed to clean the hose. We ended up with a mixture of the jet fuel and bunker C. You can imagine the problems that caused. It’s not that you can’t burn that mixture of fuel in a boiler, The mixture actually started cleaning out the hot fuel lines, causing the strainer to get dirty ever 20 minutes or so, along with causing the super-heater temperature to be unstable. There were also problems with the burners getting clogged, etc. You get the picture. It was a mess.
2- The engine controls were up against a fuel settler tank. This tank, located on the Stbd side had a crack in it. After several letters were wrote to the Union about the crack, the company eventually gave in and sent her to the yard to be repaired, among several other items.
Ok. Having said that, I will continue on with the story. I had the 4-8 watch with the 1st A/E. The 2nd A/E was on the 8-12 with a QMED named Duffy. The 2nd was called out of retirement to take the job. Duffy, as we called him, was retiring after that trip. Sadly, that was never meant to be. It wasn’t two days out of Hawaii When I broke a promise to the 1st A/E to work OT and help repair the old flash type evaporator. Instead I was nursing a hangover from the previous evening with the guys. As much as I don’t want to share that, It is part of the story. The only time that I can recall getting drunk would save my life.
So, there I lay. In my bunk at about 1030 in the morning when I was awoken by the ship shaking violently, as if the bridge just rang a full astern. Then we just stopped cold. If anyone knows the feeling you get when that dead silence seems to last forever, you would know exactly what I was sensing. But, I dismissed it for a full astern bell, then a stop. But, in the back of my mind I sensed the ship was quiet. you can always tell if they lose the plant when your in the rack, just reach up and turn on the bunk light. If it comes on, ok. If it doesn’t, there’s a loss of power.
Just when I thought of reaching up is when the explosion took place. It was the fuel tank on my side, the stbd side. I was two decks up, and it covered the porthole in my room with sludge and carbon. Some of the crew members say there were two explosions. I only remember the one that covered my porthole and rang my ears like a bell. If you can imagine being stuffed inside of a 55 gallon drum, then having someone bang it with a sledge hammer. That’s how it sounded. That cured my hangover real quick. I sprang out of bed and get dressed, but no sooner than I got my clothes on that smoke started coming in through the vent. Ok. The explosion was enough, but the smoke filling the room was what really woke me up! I grabbed a towel and got it wet in the sink. I then put the towel over my mouth and nose and headed out the door. Lucky for me, there was only one room between me and the aft door outside. I made a quick exit out the door, and just froze in my tracks.
I want to thank the architects who designed that ship, seriously. The upper engine room or the fidley as we called it was a separate house, located aft from the main house that we lived in. That saved my life as well as most of the crew who were still inside. Allow me to explain why: The stack funnel was gone. Gone as in not there anymore. AS I stared in awe at was was taking place I seen nothing more but a jagged hole with smoke billowing out of it. Like a volcano that had just started erupting. There were shards of metal everywhere. I didn’t stare too long. I wanted to get to the main deck, where I felt safer.
So, I made my way down the ladder and around to the stbd side, and froze in my tracks again. The tank top is where the stbd lifeboat davit was. The old gravity davit was totally mangled with the lifeboat just hanging on one end. That didn’t concern me. What did concern me was the reason the lifeboat and davit were in the condition they were in. The tank top was raised at least 3-4 feet, like a bubble. The Bosun was standing there with his arms raised in wonderment. That’s when we heard the guys on the bridge wing yelling down at us. The only way down for them was to repel themselves one by one down from the wing to the main deck, and that’s exactly what they did.
After a time, everyone gathered there on the stbd side. Almost everyone. There were four missing. The 2nd A/E, Duffy, and the 2 welders who were a riding gang. Not to mention that there were 11 Japanese guys who were tank cleaners. The 1st A/E and the Chief Eng. were lying on the deck covered in soot and oil. They were alive and breathing though in and out of consciousness. Ok, lets rewind slightly, because I can just hear you thinking “What on earth happened”? Let me tell you.
There was boom from an old stores crane on the stack deck of the after house, along with several empty barrels. The welders were tasked with cutting off the boom, since it wasn’t being used anymore. When a piece of hot metal fell to the main deck, it landed next to the vent to the empty fuel settler tank. The shaking I felt was the rumbling of the tank as the combustion accelerated within the tank. That was all there was to it. The effect to follow was devastating.
You can slide back from the edge of your seat, I am only half-way through this story. As we were figuring out our next move the Captain, who was chief mate on that ship for some time decided to open up the inert gas lines to the tanks. Since the CO2 system in the engine room probably didn’t work, we decided there was nothing that we can do about the engine room. We all walked up to the bow to plan our next move. The 3rd A/E, myself, and the Bosun went aft again to launch a lifeboat, and one raft. Of course the lifeboat engine was burned up probably because of being started without cooling water, so we rowed it forward and made it fast with a couple of lines they threw down to us from the deck. Then a jacobs laddder was lowered and we climbed back on board as per the Captains orders. By this time, it was late afternoon. As we sat there trying to relax, the empty barrels on the stack deck started exploding one by one. We could see them flying through the air as they blew. And then, almost as if on cue, the sun started to set and flames were starting to engulf the side of the house. That is when the Captain ordered everyone to abandon ship.
Now folks, I have to tell you that those fiberglass lifeboats are built to save your life, there’s no first class section. Sitting in that thing with 30 other men overnight was anything but comfortable. And getting everyone in that lifeboat wasn’t easy either. The 1st A/E had a broken leg, and had to be lowered on a bosuns chair. Thee were several; other injuries, but nothing too significant. One of the mates brought the EPIRB, and immediately set it off as we slowly drifted away from the ship.
The Coast Guard later told us that the explosions were heard by the submarine listeners in Hawaii. They flew around us all night in a C130 dropping off supplies for us. It was just when the sun was rising when a Japanese fishing boat picked us up. As we claimed on board the fishing boat, I took one last look at the Yukon. She just sat there, helpless. I remember seeing the hull paint burned to ash right between the seams if the tank. It looked so sad. As if a mad demon had taken over her very soul. I looked away, and never looked back. I couldn’t. She was done. We all knew that.
The fallen shipmates we left behind will haunt her megastructure for eternity. I couldn’t think about it anymore. I was in dire need if getting some food, water, and some rest. Since the foreman of the Japanese tank cleaners was bilingual, he translated telling us that there was a German container ship going the other direction that was willing to pick us up.
After a night aboard the container ship, they dropped us off on Midway island. There we split up, some going to the infirmary, the rest of us going to the PX for a change of clothes so we can get cleaned up. That night the Coast Guard flew us to Hawaii on the same C130 that flew overhead 2 nights before. After landing in Hawaii and clearing customs and immigration, a company executive was there to bring us to the Pagoda Hotel.
We were informed that the Coast Guard will be interviewing us starting the next day. I told them what I seen, and what I did. They said they would like me to stay for a hearing since I had vital information to aid in their investigation. I was none the happier to oblige. And so, 10 days later I was called in front of a panel of people. This was big news there in Hawaii. I am talking TV news reporters with cameras and the whole package. I said nothing to anyone. I was too sad over the loss of my good friend and shipmate, Duffy. May you rest in piece old timer. I’ll never forget you.
This hearing was getting scarey as I scanned the room. Allow me to paint a picture. It’s a typical conference room with a conference table. I sat at one end. To my left were 3 Coast Guard people. They were big, because they had all kinds of badges and ribbons on their uniforms. Flanking them were 2 explosives experts in suits. I just called them suits. They scared me. They were too quiet, too shady. Between the suits and the Coast Guard was a guy from the NTSB. He spoke to me briefly before the hearing to kind of help me understand what was about to take place in there. To my right was a company lawyer, who (oddly, but not surprisingly) placed himself right on my blind side. Next to him was a lawyer representing the Captain. Next to him sat the Chief Engineer and a lawyer representing him. It was getting better by the minute. I won’t put you through the lengthy questioning, but I was never too happy to get out of there.
I called my father when I arrived at the Hotel that night. He said the company called him a few nights ago and told him there was an accident that left 4 people dead, but they didn’t know who. He was told he would be notified as soon as the company knew who the victims were. He said he stayed awake all night waiting for a call. Then he phoned them back, and they told him I was ok. My father knew me all too well. He asked me how I felt. I said I was fine. Ok, he said, I know you’re broke, so get your ass back to the hall and ship back out! Dear old dad. What would I do without him?
I left out minor details in an attempt to shorten my story. But, it happens over and over again every time I recall the event. I always wondered what I may have done wrong, until I found a copy of the NTSB report of the incident. I never learned the truth until I read the report. Anyway, That’s all there is to tell. Calm seas.