The opinion of the court was delivered by: WEINFELD
The P. W. Thirtle, a super tanker, heavily laden with 200,000 barrels of petroleum products, was proceeding on New Year's Day, 1956 in Kill Van Kull, destined for Tremley Point, New Jersey. She was accompanied by the Tug Edna M. Matton on the starboard side forward any by the Tug Dalzelleader on the port side forward.
While proceeding westerly in the area of Howland Hook, the Thirtle, with Harbor Pilot Graham in control, sounded four blasts, the signal for the B. & O. Bridge, located about a mile down the channel, to open. While awaiting the opening of the bridge, the Thirtle's engines were reduced from 'Half' speed to 'Slow' at 0903, and put at 'Stop' at 0904. The tugs were in neutral position awaiting Pilot's orders.
At about this point there is a 40 degrees turn to port toward Elizabethport Reach which leads to the B. & O. Bridge. The Thirtle was then abeam a recreation pier on the starboard side (the Jersey side), starting to make a gradual swing to port to follow the natural course of the channel toward Elizabethport Reach. She was proceeding at 2 1/2 to 3 knots. The recreation pier is approximately 600 feet easterly from the Bethlehem dock. Right after the 'Stop' bell the Thirtle was caught by the flood current on the port bow and lost steerageway.
Almost at the moment when the Thirtle signalled the bridge to open, the Morania Dolphin, a tanker 212 feet in length, which was following astern, began to overtake and pass the Thirtle between her starboard side and the New Jersey shore.
The Dolphin was proceeding at 6 to 8 knots. While the Captain of the Dolphin claims he gave a passing signal, none was heard by anyone on the Thirtle's bridge. All witnesses are in agreement that no assenting signal was returned. The Dolphin undertook to pass just as the Thirtle was taking the bend. The latter was near the center of the channel, and the Dolphin, when passing the recreation pier, was about 50 feet to the starboard of the Thirtle's starboard tug and about 50 to 75 feet off the pier. Both vessels were heading westerly in a parallel course preparatory to shifting to port toward Elizabethport Reach in the direction of the B. & O. Bridge.
As the vessels continued, the Dolphin, proceeding at a faster rate than the Thirtle, passed the Thirtle which, losing steerage from just about the time the Dolphin commenced to overtake her, continued to fall off to starboard in the direction of the Bethlehem pier.
When the stern of the Dolphin was clear of the Thirtle's bow, the Dolphin was 50 feet off the Bethlehem dock, heading toward it. In order to follow the bend of the channel, she had to swing to port to avoid hitting the Bethlehem dock or going aground; in so doing, she cut across the bow of the Thirtle.
Graham, Pilot of the Thirtle, in attempting to correct the sheer and to avoid crashing into the Bethlehem dock, gave orders to the port tug to pull and to the starboard tug to push; he ordered 'Full Astern' and also dropped the port anchor, and although the orders were promptly executed, the vessel continued to drift starboard and rammed into the Bethlehem dock. The Pilot's orders were given within one minute before the crash.
Graham and others on board the Thirtle assert that the proper maneuver to correct the sheer would have been 'Half' or 'Full Ahead' but this could not be executed because of the extreme danger of a collision with the Dolphin which, in view of the Dolphin's light and gassy condition, would have been catastrophic.
As usual, there are substantial variances in estimates of distance and time.
In some respects, witnesses' versions are irreconcilable and individual witnesses' testimony abounds with inconsistencies. Also, the not uncommon situation has developed where each vessel has a theory which vindicates itself and condemns the other, with the crew of each espousing the particular theory which exonerates their vessel.
The Pilot, the Master and the accompanying Pilot on board the bridge of the Thirtle, all familiar with the Kill, contend that the starboard overtaking in the bend was hazardous and that since the Dolphin received no reply to its passing signal, it should not have continued.
The Dolphin, on the other hand, claims it did not cut across the bow of the Thirtle and that it has overtaken the Thirtle in sufficient time to enable the latter to negotiate the course without difficulty. Specifically, it claims that Pilot Graham's orders to regain steerage were given too late; that steerage was lost due to the Thirtle's own faulty navigation; and finally, that the port tug went ahead on its engines instead of reversing them, thus forcing the Thirtle farther toward the starboard bank.
After observation of the witnesses, an examination of my trial notes, a thorough study of the trial minutes, the depositions and the exhibits, I am persuaded that the Thirtle and the Dolphin both must share the blame for the Thirtle's crash into the Bethlehem dock.
The evidence is compelling that the Pilot's orders were not given until within a minute before the crash. The orders were given too late. Under existing conditions the Thirtle's course could not have been arrested in one minute. The Pilot of the Thirtle was fully aware of the danger presented by the Dolphin passing at the bend without his assent and the overcrowding condition that resulted. In fact, he testified that any passage in the 40 degrees bend was hazardous. The Thirtle, according to Graham, started to lose steerage four minutes before she rammed into the dock. Natiello, Third Mate on the Thirtle, says it was three minutes before the crash. In any event, had the orders been given when the Thirtle first lost steerage, she could have regained it in sufficient time to have averted the ...