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DANNER v. UNITED STATES

July 18, 1951

DANNER et al.
v.
UNITED STATES. THE ROYAL OAK



The opinion of the court was delivered by: BONDY

This is a libel by 35 members of the crew of the S.S. Lookout for salvage services rendered to the S.S. Royal Oak.

The S.S. Royal Oak was a tanker owned and operated by the United States, and carrying a cargo of gasoline and some Diesel oil. Some of her cargo tanks were empty. About 1:15 P.M. on February 26, 1947, she stranded on a reef off Point Galera, Ecuador, about ten miles from the coast. A number of her tanks were ripped open and she soon listed about 25 degrees to port, which list caused lubricating oil to spill on the main generator of her turbo-electric engine. The oil caught fire, and soon the entire engine-room was in flames, which spurted out above the after part of the main deck. The fire rendered the engine useless and deprived the ship of all means of navigation and of fighting the fire, and her list increased further to almost 30 degrees.

 The master, Captain Page, fearing that the cargo of gasoline might catch fire and cause an explosion which would endanger the lives of his men, ordered the Royal Oak abandoned, without intending to lose contact with his ship. After the watertight doors had been shut and the engine-room flooded with carbon dioxide gas, all the crew except the master and radio operator left the ship.

 At 1:18 P.M., a message was radioed: 'SS Royal Oak sinking off Point Galera, tanker. Main engine on fire. 30 degree list.' At 1:40 another message was sent: 'Abandoning ship. Will put on emergency transmitter with automatic keyer so you can take bearing by direction finder.' Thereafter the master and radio operator jumped from the ship and were picked up by the lifeboats.

 On account of the danger of an explosion, the three lifeboats pulled a safe distance away from the ship. Just as they were preparing to head for the shore the S.S. Lookout was sighted on the horizon and the lifeboats made for the Lookout.

 The Lookout was a C-2 type cargo vessel operated by the Grace Line. She received both distress messages from the Royal Oak and, after communicating with the United States naval authorities in the Panama Canal Zone, varied her course slightly and proceeded towards the Royal Oak. At 3:07 P.M., the Lookout sighted the burning Royal Oak.

 About 4:00 P.M., the Lookout picked up the entire ship's company of the Royal Oak from the lifeboats, and anchored about five miles from the Royal Oak. About 6:00 P.M., Captain Page, having recovered from shock, went to the Royal Oak with four officers and about fifteen men of his crew. All these except the master and the four officers returned to the Lookout at about 8:00 P.M. The four officers found that the main fire in the Royal Oak's engine-room had almost died out and that the cargo of gasoline had not caught fire. Small fires in various places were put out with fire extinguishers.

 About 2:00 A.M. the next morning, the Royal Oak's list began to increase, and some time thereafter the high tide floated her free of the reef, and her list then increased further to about 36 degrees. The five men aboard the ship, fearing that she might capsize or sink, signalled to the Lookout that they desired to be taken off. At about 3:30 A.M., a boat was dispatched from the Lookout; when it arrived at the side of the Royal Oak, the four officers were packing personal gear, so that the lifeboat, with the master, the four officers, and some eight to fifteen suitcases aboard, did not get back to the Lookout until about 7:20 A.M.

 After the Royal Oak was free she drifted in a northeasterly direction, almost parallel with but possibly slightly inward towards the shore, at about one knot.

 Later that morning, February 27, Ecudorian officials came aboard the Lookout and conferred with her master, Captain Halterman. Captain Page of the Royal Oak was not asked to attend this conference. Shortly thereafter, Captain Halterman decided to take the Royal Oak in tow. Accordingly, at about 11:00 A.M., a lifeboat was dispatched to the Royal Oak with the Lookout's Chief Mate Daly and eight other men from the Lookout, and the Royal Oak's Chief Mate Hollywood and four other men from the Royal Oak, to rig towing gear. About 12:45 P.M. the boat returned to the Lookout's side with gear that had been packed by the Royal Oak's men. By 3:30 P.M., the tow lines had been secured and the tow then proceeded at very slow speed until noon of the following day, February 28, when one of the tow lines parted. A Lookout lifeboat containing the Lookout's chief mate and approximately eleven other members of her crew, as well as the Royal Oak's Second Mate Sorensen (who went along to get the Royal Oak's chronometers) proceeded to repair the parted line and to run another line, and thereafter the tow was resumed.

 About 3:00 P.M. on February 28, a lifeboat containing members of both crews was dispatched to the Royal Oak to remove provisions from the latter, with her master's permission, in order to provide for the increased number of men aboard the Lookout.

 At approximately 7:20 that evening, the Lookout sighted the U.S.S. Recovery, a naval vessel which had been sent from the Canal Zone to aid in salving the Royal Oak. The following morning, March 1, the Recovery took over the Royal Oak from the Lookout, giving a 'receipt' which recited that 'this transfer * * * will not relinquish any salvage rights of the S.S. Lookout, Grace Line, Master, crew and Cadets. * * *' The entire crew of the Royal Oak was taken aboard the Recovery, and the latter, with the aid of the tug Favorite, which arrived about noon of March 1, brought the Royal Oak safely to Balboa in the Canal Zone on March 6 after towing her 371 miles in six days.

 The salvage services rendered to the Royal Oak and her crew by the Lookout extended over a period of almost three days, during which time the Royal Oak was towed a total of 99 miles by the Lookout. The sea during this period ranged from smooth to moderate, with the wind from Force 1 to Force 5.

 The value of the Royal Oak in sound condition was $ 1,860,000.00, and her value after the stranding and fire was $ 1,414,071.91. Her cargo was worth $ 140,121.23; thus the total value of the property salved was $ ...


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