The opinion of the court was delivered by: BYERS
This is a limitation proceeding resulting from the sinking of the laden tanker Dodge by the laden tanker Michael on May 25, 1952 at about 10:30 p.m. D.S.T. in the upper Delaware River, some miles northerly of its entrance into Delaware Bay. The Michael struck the Dodge about 25 feet forward of her stern on the port side, at an estimated angle of 45 degrees.
The collision caused an explosion upon the Dodge at once, and in the ensuing fire on that ship all hands save one perished, and the ship went down by the stern to the bottom within a few minutes -- estimated at three. The fire did not burn itself out for several hours, presumably because the forward floating part of the hulk remained in a vertical position until the contents of the tanks had been consumed.
Eight men lost their lives which means that no testimony on the part of the Dodge is available concerning her navigation prior to the collision, since the survivor, Tellefsen, was in the watch below from 6:00 p.m. D.S.T. onward and was rescued from the water into which he was hurled or jumped, after an interval of some hours.
The colliding tanker Michael also took fire at once and having pulled away from the Dodge after penetrating her hull some 14 1/2 feet on the port side near the stern, her crew under the leadership of the mate, was organized into a fire fighting effort which successfully functioned so that this ship was ultimately beached and later reached a shipyard for repairs. Three lives were lost on the Michael, including that of Gustafsen, the third mate.
This tragic happening was in the making for only about four minutes as nearly as can be computed and, in light of all the testimony, was inexcusable.
Since strong reliance is placed by the claimant Carras (owner of the Michael) upon the testimony of the captain and pilot of that ship, a word should be said at the outset, of the conditions on board during the first few minutes after the collision.
Those in the wheelhouse at the time were the captain, Amy, the pilot, Lemmon, the third mate, Gustafsen, and the helmsman Sibley; the first three at once left the pilothouse as the result of the crash, while Sibley remained for a brief time at the wheel.
Fire at once burst out on the Dodge, and the Michael backed out from engagement with her, the engines at that time being in reverse, and the explosion, which at once occurred on the Dodge, started a fire on the Michael. In the confusion of the moment, there was a delay in sounding the general alarm on the latter but that was done after an estimated interval of three or four minutes.
It is said that ultimately Captain Amy went to the bridge, and two witnesses deposed that the pilot climbed in a lifeboat which was not launched. He denies that he did this, and this recital is not intended to be a finding as to that specific subject.
It is not a cause for wonder that the catastrophe unnerved those who, almost without warning, were required to deal with its effects, but these few moments that bordered upon panic cannot be ignored in appraising the testimony now adduced after a lapse of nearly three years, in which the captain and the pilot have had ample opportunity to reflect and rationalize.
Since the case for the Michael is based upon the central theory that the Dodge was at fault in the matter of her navigation, it will be convenient to discuss that aspect of the controversy at the outset, because its demonstration or lack thereof is of immediate consequence concerning the right to limitation.
The Parties to the Limitation.
The corporate owner of the Dodge, Diesel Tanker A. C. Dodge, Inc., (to be called A. C. Dodge), and the corporate operator thereof (Spentonbush).
The owner of the Michael, J. M. Carras, Inc., to be called Carras;
Mrs. Frances E. Elliott, widow of the deceased master of the Dodge;
Palter and Kosinsky retained their status as claimants but offered no testimony at the trial;
The claimants August Guerin and the Estate of Guerin, Tellefsen, Dafnos and Allard withdrew their claims before the testimony was closed.
The Dodge was a total loss and the owner has abandoned the wreck; it was stated that there was no pending freight because delivery of cargo had to be made in order to earn it.
In effect therefore there is no limitation fund in court, which means that the sole possible redress against the Dodge interests may perhaps be that of personal injury claimants, see Tit. 46 U.S.C.A. 183(b) et seq.
Diesel Tanker A. C. Dodge, 250' 6' by 37' 1'; depth 14' 4'; tank capacity 15,800 barrels; h. p. 805; gross tonnage 1,147; net 951.
Tanker Michael, 523' 6' by 68' 1'; depth 39' 1'; tank capacity 140,722 barrels; h.p. 6,000; gross tonnage 10,441; net 6,249.
The waters involved were part of the Delaware River as shown on U.S. Coast & Geodetic Survey Chart No. 294, namely, that reach between the entrance to the Chesapeake & Delaware Canal on the westerly side of the river, on the north, and Liston Point on the south; this means that a portion of the Liston Range, all of the Baker Range, and all of the Reedy Island Range constituted the waters involved.
The channel in those ranges was 800 feet wide except at the southerly end of Reedy Island Range where it merges into Baker Range; here the width is said to have been about 1200 feet in the vicinity of Quick Flashing Light and Bell Buoy '2R', and the navigation of both vessels was confined to the channel according to the credible evidence.
The tide was flood, of a strength of 1 1/2 knots, and there was a light southeast wind; visibility was good, although earlier in the evening there had been showers, and seemingly there was no moonlight to illuminate these waters.
The Michael was proceeding up the river with the tide, and the Dodge in the opposite direction, and range and running lights were showing.
The mutual approach of these vessels was oblique, as will be seen from the chart.
The Compass Courses.
The true compass course from south to north in the various ranges are as follows:
Liston Range 317 degree
Baker Range 355 degree
Reedy Island Range 15 degree
which means that the northbound vessel would make about a twenty degree right turn moving from Baker Range into Reedy Island Range.
The lengths of the ranges are stated, without contradiction, to have been:
Liston Range 12.4
Baker Range 1.65
Reedy Island Range 4.26.
The total of the last two is 5.91.
The vessels' respective speeds over the ground were about:
Michael 15 knots,
Dodge 9 knots.
This means the combined speeds were 24 knots or about 800 yards per minute. Since the distance from the northerly end of Reedy Island Range to the southerly end of Baker was roughly 6 nautical miles, a place of meeting would be reached in near enough to four minutes to indicate the approximate time in which these vessels could have arranged for safe passage port to port in an 800 foot channel.
The foregoing is not contested, and requires no findings.
The Michael's Theory Concerning the Navigation of the Dodge.
It is urged for the colliding vessel that the navigation of the Dodge was faulty in that she veered from her own starboard side of the channel across nearly to the easterly edge, with the probable intention of proceeding on that side of the Reedy Island Range east of buoy 2-R on a shortcut which would save about ten minutes in time and bring her into the Liston Range in the vicinity of buoy 8-L; that course would have opened to the Michael the starboard running light of the Dodge, and thus a probable starboard passing with the Michael.
In conformity with this theory Lemmon testified that the Dodge sank at a place just north of buoy 2-R and to the east of the easterly channel line of the Reedy Island Range.
That testimony is not accepted in the belief that 'that wish is father to the thought' for the following reasons:
As has been stated, the immediate effect of the collision and the explosion with accompanying flames and smoke on the Dodge was to create such consternation in the wheelhouse of the Michael as to render it extremely unlikely that any accurate observations were made as to the place where the Dodge sank at the stern within a very few minutes, estimated at three or four, since the fire, first on the Dodge and immediately upon the Michael, was so devastating that mental reactions as related at the end of nearly three years, cannot now be relied upon; it is no reflection on Lemmon to say that he was more concerned with his own safety than with trying to spot the place of the collision. Captain Amy does not attempt to do so, and his testimony may be quoted:
'Q. Where did the collision occur? A. It was in the vicinity of 2-R. I didn't watch the buoy too closely as I was watching the vessel rather than the buoy.
'Q. When you say in the vicinity of 2-R, what do you mean by that? Within a half mile of it? A. It could have been above or it could have been below a quarter of a mile either way.'
It is to be remembered that 2-R is a flashing red buoy.
It is a reasonable inference from the testimony of the pilot Marshall of the downbound Socony (later to be mentioned) that her overtaking and passing of the Dodge, which was accomplished just above the northerly end of Reedy Island Range placed the downbound Dodge in her own starboard side of the channel; the respective speeds of these vessels were 10.8 of the Socony, and about 9 of the Dodge.
Pilot Marshall also of the Socony testified as to these speeds:
'A. I was about two knots faster than she was. It took me 15 minutes to get by her, so about two knots. ...