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Until the Sea Shall Free Them

Cover of Until the Sea Shall Free Them

Until the Sea Shall Free Them

Life, Death and Survival in the Merchant Marine
A devastating disaster at sea . . . an officer who refuses to hide the truth. . . a courtroom confrontation with far-reaching implications . . . The Perfect Storm meets A Civil Action in a gripping account of one of the most significant shipwrecks of the twentieth century.

In 1983 the Marine Electric, a "reconditioned" World War II vessel, was on a routine voyage thirty miles off the East Coast of the United States when disaster struck. As the old coal carrier sank, chief mate Bob Cusick watched his crew--his friends and colleagues--succumb to the frigid forty-foot waves and subzero winds of the Atlantic. Of the thirty-four men aboard, Cusick was one of only three to survive. And he soon found himself facing the most critical decision of his life: whether to stand by the Merchant Marine officers' unspoken code of silence, or to tell the truth about why his crew and hundreds of other lives had been unnecessarily sacrificed at sea.

Like many other ships used by the Merchant Marine, the Marine Transport Line's Marine Electric was very old and made of "dirty steel" (steel with excess sulfur content). Many of these vessels were in terrible condition and broke down frequently. Yet the government persistently turned a blind eye to the potential dangers, convinced that the economic return on keeping these ships was worth the risk.
Cusick chose to blow the whistle.

Until the Sea Shall Free Them
re-creates in compelling detail the wreck of the Marine Electric and the legal drama that unfolded in its wake. With breathtaking immediacy, Robert Frump, who covered the story for the Philadelphia Inquirer, describes the desperate battle waged by the crew against the forces of nature. Frump also brings to life Cusick's internal struggle. He knew what happened to those who spoke out against the system, knew that he too might be stripped of his license and prosecuted for "losing his ship," yet he forged ahead. In a bitter lawsuit with owners of the ship, Cusick emerged victorious. His expose of government inaction led to vital reforms in the laws regarding the safety of ships; his courageous stand places him among the unsung heroes of our time.

From the Hardcover edition.
A devastating disaster at sea . . . an officer who refuses to hide the truth. . . a courtroom confrontation with far-reaching implications . . . The Perfect Storm meets A Civil Action in a gripping account of one of the most significant shipwrecks of the twentieth century.

In 1983 the Marine Electric, a "reconditioned" World War II vessel, was on a routine voyage thirty miles off the East Coast of the United States when disaster struck. As the old coal carrier sank, chief mate Bob Cusick watched his crew--his friends and colleagues--succumb to the frigid forty-foot waves and subzero winds of the Atlantic. Of the thirty-four men aboard, Cusick was one of only three to survive. And he soon found himself facing the most critical decision of his life: whether to stand by the Merchant Marine officers' unspoken code of silence, or to tell the truth about why his crew and hundreds of other lives had been unnecessarily sacrificed at sea.

Like many other ships used by the Merchant Marine, the Marine Transport Line's Marine Electric was very old and made of "dirty steel" (steel with excess sulfur content). Many of these vessels were in terrible condition and broke down frequently. Yet the government persistently turned a blind eye to the potential dangers, convinced that the economic return on keeping these ships was worth the risk.
Cusick chose to blow the whistle.

Until the Sea Shall Free Them
re-creates in compelling detail the wreck of the Marine Electric and the legal drama that unfolded in its wake. With breathtaking immediacy, Robert Frump, who covered the story for the Philadelphia Inquirer, describes the desperate battle waged by the crew against the forces of nature. Frump also brings to life Cusick's internal struggle. He knew what happened to those who spoke out against the system, knew that he too might be stripped of his license and prosecuted for "losing his ship," yet he forged ahead. In a bitter lawsuit with owners of the ship, Cusick emerged victorious. His expose of government inaction led to vital reforms in the laws regarding the safety of ships; his courageous stand places him among the unsung heroes of our time.

From the Hardcover edition.
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Excerpts-
  • Chapter One CASTING OFF

    Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever . . . it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street and methodically knocking people's hats off--then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can.

    Herman Melville

    10:00 p.m. / Thursday, Feb. 10, 1983 / Coal terminal

    Norfolk, Virginia

    At the loading pier near Norfolk, Bob Cusick, the veteran chief mate, spread steam coal into the holds of the Marine Electric like a pastry chef layering a cake. No chunk was larger than a Ping-Pong ball, and some of the coal was just black powder. In bulk, the coal formed a huge mass, heavier than 10,000 automobiles, and it had to be loaded carefully so that the ship remained balanced.

    Huge chutes passed over the ship and dumped black coal evenly at Cusick's command. Normally, it took three passes to load a ship this size, but Bob Cusick had done this more than a few times. He almost never needed the third, "finishing" pass. That was an advantage of time on the water, of time on the piers. There was a lot he knew, a lot he'd seen that the younger kids aboard ship might never see.

    Still, Cusick always felt the excitement of leaving, of casting off, of starting the voyage. All of them, all thirty-four seamen and officers, felt it, even if this would be just a milk run up the coast, Virginia to Massachusetts and back, shuttling coal to the power plants of New England.

    There were a number of green kids on the ship who felt the excitement more than Cusick, and he wondered what they must think he was doing now. For anyone with just a few months at sea would think Bob Cusick was cheating. Clearly, the chief mate of the Marine Electric was overloading his ship--she had sunk below the legal load line. You could see it, if you knew just enough about the business not to know what you didn't know. Cusick had filled the hatches with 23,000 tons of coal on top of the 1,800 tons already there. And now the ship was five inches below its legal load line.

    Or so it seemed. The truth was that Marine Transport Lines, the owner, never asked Cusick to overload a ship. That was one thing he liked about this job.

    Another truth was that Cusick had checked the salinity of the harbor water carefully. It measured 1.013 on his hydrometer. That meant the harbor water was far less salty than ocean water. So when the Marine Electric sailed into the ocean, she would rise magically, like some huge high school science fair display, leaving her load line comfortably above the waterline.

    Only there was nothing magic about it. It was professional procedure. And it was how Cusick got and kept a job that paid him well at a time when American maritime work was scarce.

    He liked this job, and he liked the men he worked with. Most all of them, with their different ranks and duties, had drifted back to the ship as he was loading it.

    They were members of diverse tribes with diverse skills, and on some ships, the tribes never got along. There were the officers, of course. Deck officers, like the third mate, navigated and steered the ship. Engineers, like the first assistant engineer, kept the turbines humming and the power up. Ordinary seamen fell near the bottom of the organizational chart, just learning the business. Able-bodied seamen, or ABs, were veteran, skilled seamen. Oilers and wipers worked the engine room down below, assisting the engineers. At the bottom of the officer social...
About the Author-
  • ROBERT FRUMP, a former maritime writer and investigative reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer, won the George Polk Award for National Reporting for his stories on the Marine Electric disaster. He was also the managing editor of The Journal of Commerce, the country's premier maritime publication. He received the Gerald Loeb Award for National Business Reporting and was a member of a Pulitzer Prize--winning Philadelphia Inquirer task force. Now an executive for a large financial services firm, he lives in Summit, New Jersey.

Reviews-
  • Paul Stillwell, author of Battleship Arizona: An Illustrated History "This is a story told with riveting intensity. Frump captures both the cruel sea and the determination of a group of individuals who worked together to fix a broken system. Until the Sea Shall Free Them is maritime journalism at its best."
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    Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
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