PAnews.com, Port Arthur, Texas

May 22, 2013

Contributions of maritime industry recognized

Sherry Koonce
The Port Arthur News

PORT ARTHUR — During an outdoor ceremony Wednesday contributions of the nation’s maritime industry were recognized, along with special anniversaries.

This year’s National Maritime Day ceremony at the Seamen’s Memorial Sundial marked the 27th in Port Arthur as well as the 50th anniversary of the disappearance of the Marine Sulfur Queen and the 20th anniversary of the explosion of the OMI Charger.

Port Arthur’s Seafarers’ Center also celebrated its 40-year anniversary and the organization’s 40-year partnership with the Port of Port Arthur.

“The importance of this country’s maritime industry to both commerce and the national security cannot be understated,” Billy Greer, guest speaker from the U.S. Maritime Administration, said.

National Maritime Day was first established in 1993 by Congress. The U.S. holiday is observed each May 22, the day the American Steamship set sail from Savannah, Ga., on the first-ever transoceanic voyage under steam power.

Even before the U.S gained its independence from England, the maritime industry played a key historical role.

During the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812 and the Mexican American War, the merchant marine rose up to serve as a large part of this country’s navy, and has continued to do so through present-day wars, Greer said.

“During WWII it is a little known fact that one in 26 mariners serving aboard merchant ships died in the line of duty, suffering a greater percentage of war-related deaths than all other U.S. services. An average of 33 ships were sunk each week,” Greer said.

Maritime Administration ships have also supported humanitarian missions such as Hurricane Katrina relief, earthquake relief efforts in Haiti, and delivered food aid through pirate infested waters.

Being a merchant marine, Greer said, is dangerous work.

Both the SS Marine Sulfur Queen and the OMI Charger are proof that a merchant marine’s job is not for the squeamish.

Staffed with crews from Port Arthur, the Marine Sulfur Queen’s voyage began in Beaumont on Feb. 2, 1963.  The T2 tanker ship that had been converted to carry molten sulfur  disappeared in 1963 near the southern coast of Florida. Neither the ship, nor its 39 crewmen were found, though a vast search did uncover debris believed to have been from the ship.

Eldridge Smith of Port Arthur was a pumpman on the ill-fated OMI Charger, which suffered a major explosion and fire in the Bolivar Roads inner anchorage near Galveston in 1993. The subsequent fire burned five hours and claimed the lives of three crewmen.

“We had had a leak, and as we prepared to run a test, I went down to the engine room. The last thing I remember was an explosion,” Smith said.

Eldridge credited emergency training the crew had received for saving his life, and the lives of most of the crew.

“Thanks to our training we did not lose but three guys,” Eldridge said. “Our schooling and training had prepared us for stuff like this.”

Father  Sinclair Oubre, executive director of the Port Arthur International Seafarer’s Center, said ceremonies like the one in Port Arthur Wednesday are important to keep the area’s maritime history alive.

“Many of the stories have been lost because so many merchants have died,” Oubre said.

During World War II, 350 or so Marines from Texas were killed. Of those, 110 or so were from Port Arthur, Oubre said.

Following the ceremony, those in attendance walked a short distance to the seawall, where a wreath was laid in the water in memorial to lives lost during maritime service.

E-mail: skoonce@panews.com

Twitter:@SKooncePANews