The opinion of the court was delivered by: CONGER
Libel by eleven members of the crew of the S.S. Saint Mihiel for salvage.
Libellants consented to the dismissal of the libel against War Emergency Tankers, Inc.
The S.S. Saint Mihiel was a tanker operated by respondent United States of America.
On April 8, 1945 the Saint Mihiel left New York in convoy. She carried a cargo of six million odd gallons of high-octane gasoline for delivery to England.
In the same convoy and immediately preceding the Saint Mihiel was another tanker, the Nashbulk. On April 9, 1945, at about 8 p.m. a collision occurred between the Saint Mihiel and the Nashbulk. The Saint Mihiel was struck on her starboard side at or about the No. 6 tank, and as a result fire broke out on the Saint Mihiel, which soon enveloped the whole vessel. As one of the witnesses stated, 'She immediately went up into flames.' The captain and the chief mate were on the bridge at the time. According to one of the crew, the conditions were such that the captain stated then that, 'We could not possibly do anything with her. We could not fight it and we would have to abandon ship.' The general alarm was then sounded. At that time there was a hole on the top of the deck and the rough seas were going into the side of the ship and forcing the gasoline up (from No. 6 tank) and spreading it over the entire vessel and into the sea, so that soon the whole ship was afire as well as the water on the starboard side. The flames on the ship were higher than the mast. There was, of course, a fear in the minds of some of the men that the Saint Mihiel would blow up. There was ammunition on board for the use of the gun crew and it was exploding. As one may very well imagine, there was great confusion and panic. The captain was yelling, 'Abandon ship, abandon ship', about the time the burning gasoline on the water was beginning to encircle the ship.
After some difficulty the No. 2 life boat on the portside was launched, and some of the officers and men attempted to leave the vessel that way, but the flames started to come into the boat and they were compelled to jump into the sea. Most of the men jumped into the sea from the Saint Mihiel and started to swim away. The survivors were picked up by two of the escort destroyers in the convoy, which had turned back to rescue the men. Out of the crew of 50, 27 perished including the captain and the chief mate.
Several of the destroyer escorts were ordered to stand by and they cruised around all night in search of survivors, and the Nashbulk stood by all night. In the meantime the fire on the Saint Mihiel continued. She was in sight of the destroyers and the Nashbulk during the night. At 7:30 the next morning she was about five miles from one of the destroyers.
In the meantime and about 1 P.M. of April 9th, two destroyers, which were in a west bound convoy in the neighborhood of Bermuda were ordered to the scene of the collision to stand by and to assist. The destroyers were the Edsall and the Stewart. At the same time the navy tugs Kiowa and Escape stationed at Bermuda were also ordered to the scene.
The Stewart and the Edsall arrived in the immediate vicinity of the Saint Mihiel at about 8 A.M. At that time the Nashbulk and the Saint Mihiel were about ten miles apart and the Saint Mihiel was still aflame and the flames were rather high. As Commander Slayden of the Edsall described it, 'When we first arrived in the area the Saint Mihiel was aflame, principally midships, with flames billowing up 60 to 100 feet in height and flames were still licking up the side of the ship from the gasoline that was spilled out into the water.'
Commander Slayden who was the Navy officer in charge directed the Stewart to put an inspection party on board to determine the condition of the Saint Mihiel. Lieutenant Day of the Stewart with 6 men boarded the Saint Mihiel at about 9 A.M. They made their inspection and reported that it would be feasible to put the fires out and the order was given them by Commander Slayden to proceed with that operation.
At that time the main fires were the gasoline fires burning through the open hatches. The main one was just aft of the deckhouse. It was burning flames of varying intensity, but as Lieutenant Day of the Stewart stated, 'Apparently the gas would accumulate in the tank and all of a sudden burst forth, and a big pillar of smoke and flame would shoot up- rather alarming.' There were a number of smaller gasoline fires forward of the deckhouse.
After an inspection of half an hour it was determined that it was feasible to put out the fires and the Stewart was ordered alongside the tanker. 31 men and 3 officers from the Stewart boarded the Saint Mihiel. They were equipped with all the necessary fire fighting equipment. At 1 P.M. it was reported that the fire was under control. There were still some fires going on but it was felt they could be controlled. At about 1:15 P.M. Commander Slayden, with an engineer and another officer came aboard. There were a number of smoldering fires and still quite a bit of smoke. The men were locating these as rapidly as they could and extinguishing them.
After an inspection of the engine room and fire rooms, which appeared to be in good condition, and after a consultation, and since there was steam in the power plant, the Navy officers agreed that it was practical to bring in the Saint Mihiel on her own power. It was decided to bring as many men as the Edsall could spare to man the plant and the ship and stations and also to call on the survivors of the Saint Mihiel who were familiar with the engineering plan to assist in its operation.
Commander Slayden then sent a message to the Nashbulk requesting volunteers to reboard the Saint Mihiel. When the message was relayed to the Nashbulk, Baretich, second mate of the Saint Mihiel lined up the survivors of the fire- those who were able to get on deck- and called for volunteers to reboard the Saint Mihiel. All did volunteer. Some of the men were not in good condition and they were eliminated. In all, 14, including the second mate were finally selected. In the crew to take the Saint Mihiel back to New York were 4 officers and 11 men from the Edsall, 4 men from the Stewart and 14 men from the Saint ...