July 23, 2008

Salvage Rights Sought For Wreck In Long Island Sound

By Kim Martineau, The Hartford Courant, Conn.

Jul. 23--A tugboat hauling tons of steel sank so rapidly in 1984 that its crew members had no time to escape. Their bodies were recovered, but the scrap metal they were towing was left at the bottom of Long Island Sound. Now, a New Jersey company wants to go after it.

Weeks Marine Inc. has asked a federal judge for exclusive rights to the wreck, off the coast of Norwalk, to protect its rusting cargo from other would-be treasure hunters.

If the request is granted, the company plans to retrieve the scrap steel, worth as much as $700,000, this summer. On a recent dive, workers found the tugboat's barge, the Cape Race, sitting upright in about 70 feet of water. If the weather cooperates, the company expects the salvage operation to take three days.

Lifting heavy bars of steel from the bottom of Long Island Sound is no easy task, which may explain why no one has claimed the scrap before now. A floating crane will drop a steel claw to the bottom and hoist the steel bars aboard a barge. A tugboat will then haul the booty ashore, for sale.

Advertised on nautical charts, the wreck is popular among recreational divers. Several pieces of the tugboat, the Celtic, have been snapped off, including its propeller. Its hatch door is now part of the nautical bric-a-brac that greets diners as they walk into Sono Seaport Seafood in South Norwalk.

Sponges and plants blanket what's left of the submerged tug. "It's like an artificial reef," said Richard Weeks, company president. "You'd think you were looking at an aquarium."

The Celtic encountered rough seas the night it left Bridgeport, on Nov. 17, 1984, towing the Cape Race. The tug was reported missing when it failed to arrive the next morning in Newark, N.J. A lobsterman, spotting a slick of bubbling fuel oil, discovered the place where it went down, a mile off Sheffield Island.

The Cape Race had been taking on water for several days, testimony before the National Transportation Safety Board showed. When the barge went down, it dragged the tugboat with it, plunging six men to their death.

The crew had little time to react. Rescue divers discovered a scene frozen in time, down to the pilothouse clock, stopped at 10:30 p.m.

The cook was found in the galley, the engineer in the upper engine room and the pilot in his bunk. The mate steering the doomed tug was still gripping its wheel. Deckhand Paul Chartrand had tried to jam the ship in reverse, in a last attempt to throw off its deadly load.

After four decades working at sea, Chartrand was about to retire. Chartrand's family said that he was planning to give up his job just a few months after the incident occurred.The Cape Race was named after a barren point on the coast of Newfoundland that received the Titanic's distress call the night it sank in 1912.

Court testimony revealed that the Cape Race had extensive structural damage and that the company that owned the barge, MJ Rudolph of Staten Island, had a spotty record of maintaining its fleet. The families of the drowned crew sued and settled out of court.

None of the companies involved is still in business. Eklof Marine, the company that owned the tugboat, was sold to K-Sea Marine Transportation in 1999, a year after Eklof agreed to pay $9.5 million in fines for an accidental oil spill off Block Island.

As the price of steel climbed, Weeks kept remembering the Celtic's abandoned cargo. Three weeks ago, he sent a team of divers down to investigate.

From the video footage, Weeks marveled at the barge's salvage-ready position. "It's literally sitting there like it's in the parking lot," he said.

Its 1,400 tons of scrap steel were valued at $90,000 at the time, but Weeks declined to estimate the value today. At $500 per ton, the going rate for the steel contained in the wreck, it might fetch as much as $700,000.

The company also wants to salvage the Cape Race if possible. Rusted, with gaping holes in its hull, the barge will never be seaworthy again. But at 350 tons, it may be a valuable piece of scrap.

Contact Kim Martineau at [email protected]


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