This Week in Texas History: A column
by BARTEE HAILE
On May 27, 1963, a Coast Guard board of inquiry wrapped up a six-week investigation into the mysterious disappearance of a Texas tanker in the Bermuda Triangle.
The “SS Marine Sulphur Queen” began life in 1944 as the “New Haven,” an oil transport owned and operated by Esso, the foreign face of what Americans know today as Exxon-Mobil. For the next decade and a half, the 504-foot, 7,240-ton colossus crisscrossed the oceans of the world.
Then in 1960 the Marine Transport Company of New York bought the “New Haven” and had her refitted for a revolutionary new cargo – liquid sulphur at a piping hot 255 degrees. The first tanker of its kind was renamed “SS Marine Sulphur Queen” and leased out to Texas Gulf Sulphur, which ran a plant near Beaumont that extracted sulphur from the salt dome at Spindletop.
Certified for service in January 1961, the “Sulphur Queen” stayed busy making no fewer than 63 round-trips to ports up and down the Atlantic coast from its home base in Beaumont. It was not, however, smooth sailing for the tanker which was plagued by problems that included accidental spills of the hazardous cargo and frequent fires in sulphur-soaked insulation.
The “Sulphur Queen” set out for Norfolk, Virginia on the evening of Feb. 2, 1963 with a full load of the molten yellow liquid and a full crew of 39. The routine voyage was supposed to take five days, unloading another two and the return trip five more putting the tanker back in Beaumont on Valentine’s Day.
At 1:25 a.m. on Feb. 4 and approximately 200 miles off Key West, a seaman used the ship-to-shore radio to place an order with his stockbroker in Florida. That was the last time anyone heard from the “Sulphur Queen.”
When the Texas tanker was a no-show at Norfolk on the night of Feb. 7, the Coast Guard initiated its search with an “All Ships Urgent Broadcast.” This request for any information from other vessels that may have seen the “Sulphur Queen” or had been in radio contact with her turned up nothing.
Under the direction of the Coast Guard, planes from the Navy, Marines and Air Force took to the sky on Feb. 8 to scour the sea from Beaumont to Norfolk for signs of the missing ship. But a meticulous survey of 350,000 square miles of water over a five-day period proved frustratingly fruitless.
On Feb. 14, the families of the three dozen crewmen received the telegram they all had been dreading. The chairman of Maritime Transport Company informed them the Coast Guard had suspended the search and that “present indications indicate probable loss” of all hands.
A naval torpedo retriever came upon a floating flea market of debris 12 miles southwest of Key West on Feb. 19. A number of life jackets and rings pulled from the drink bore the label “Sulphur Queen.”
A second and more focused air-sea search was immediately launched, but the seven ships and 48 aircraft had no better luck than their predecessors. The hunt for the “Sulphur Queen” was officially called off on Mar. 14.
By that time, the Coast Guard investigation was already in its third week with three more weeks to go. The exhaustive hearings featured a long list of expert witnesses, who testified about everything from the volatile nature of sulphur in liquid form to teeth marks on a life preserver that suggested an attack by “predatory fish,” a scientific euphemism for sharks.
Speculation centered on the possibility the “Sulphur Queen” broke in half in rough seas as had three tankers of the same vintage over the past 11 years. But even that catastrophic theory could not explain why there had been no SOS since the other vessels had stayed afloat long enough for most of the crews to safely abandon ship.
Other causes considered were a freak wave that capsized the tanker, an explosion resulting from a leak in one of the sulphur compartments and a “stray mine.”
When it was all said and done, the board of inquiry basically punted, to use a football analogy. Speaking for his fellow officers, an admiral admitted they could not say with any certainty what really happened to the “Sulphur Queen” much less when or where.
Relatives of the missing and presumed dead crewmen filed a wrongful-death lawsuit claiming reckless overloading was the cause of the unspecified disaster at sea. After almost a decade, a federal appeals court ruled in their favor and awarded the grieving plaintiffs millions of dollars in damages.
In 1974 author Charles Berlitz immortalized the “Sulphur Queen” in his international best-seller “The Bermuda Triangle.” The book, which sold 20 million copies in 30 different languages, fired the public imagination but came no closer to solving the mystery of the missing Texas tanker than the Coast Guard.
Do you have your copy of “Tornadoes, Hurricanes & Other Disasters,” the latest “Best of This Week in Texas History” column collection? Order today at twith.com or mail a check for $14.20 to Bartee Haile, P.O. Box 152, Friendswood, TX 77549.