All the Men in the SeaAll the Men in the Sea
by Michael Krieger

“Could not put this down” is what I said about this book to co-workers who saw me reading it on break and asked if it was any good. It’s a gripping true story, told in a way that lets me experience events from inside the skins of the ordinary men involved in them. An anxious teenaged deck-hand, a dogged tugboat captain, a fatherly ship’s-storekeeper, an experienced deep-sea diver — one by one, they become real to me. This was an examination of an accident on a work-site, but it was never impersonally statistical. It stayed grounded in the lived experiences of individuals, and the story is always given to the reader through the eyes of human beings. That may be the reason why it grabbed me the way it did. As my sister has pointed out before, I tend to prefer my history “with the people in.”

There was plenty of general information and factual detail here, too, of course. Written for the general reader without any technical background, the book has to explain what’s involved in the process of laying a pipeline on the bottom of the sea. We get clear explanations of whatever we need to know in order to understand the events, enough to grasp what was involved in the various decisions, without getting too bogged down in reams of data.

The DLB-269 was a 400-foot-long barge built for the job of laying undersea oil pipeline. She carried pipe-laying equipment, including two towering derrick cranes, several tons of cement-coated pipe, a diving bell and decompression chamber for the dive crew, a warehouse of parts and supplies, generators, compressors, lathes, and the living quarters and kitchens to support a crew of 245 men.

Such a massive barge had no motive power of its own, but depended on tugboats to tow her into position and hold her there against drifting. As the welded lengths of pipe were lowered down a slide at the stern of the barge, the divers descended to the sea floor to seal the connections and position the pipe in its trench. Then the tugs would move the barge very slightly to a new position, and the process would be repeated.

In the fall of 1995, the DLB-269 was laying pipe in the Gulf of Mexico when Hurricane Roxanne approached. Instead of towing the barge into harbor to shelter from the storm, the owners decided to have her ride out the storm at sea. Because her position was too shallow for safety, she was towed a short distance into deeper water. Obviously time and money played into this decision, as the time lost in towing the short distance to deep water was less costly than the longer trip all the way to a harbor. When Roxanne had passed, she could be quickly towed back to her original position, ready to resume laying pipe.

But riding out Roxanne at sea had taken a toll on this aging barge. There were leaks — and the pumps were struggling to keep up with them. And then, to make matters worse, Roxanne made a U-turn and headed straight back at the barge for a second time, at increased strength. Caught in the shallower water, with no time to be towed back to a deeper position, and already suffering from serious leaks, the barge was in trouble.

The most impressive heroes of the story, to me, were the crews of the tugboats. The barge’s own two tugs, the North Carolina and the Captain John, fought valiantly to keep the lines secure and hold the barge in towering 40-foot waves, keeping her from running aground in the shallows. A distress call asking for help brought out one more tug, the Ducker Tide, the only one whose captain dared to risk leaving safe harbor. When the lines to the barges snapped, the tug crews risked their lives to re-attach them, working on open decks swept by the wind and sea. Despite all their efforts, the barge finally broke free.

Listing heavily, beset by leaks, the barge began to sink, dragged into the shallows and torn to pieces by the waves which slammed across her deck. The barge crew couldn’t hang on any longer. One by one, two by three, they jumped overboard, into towering waves, powerful winds, blinding spray, bobbing in their life jackets, specks in the stormy ocean.

It would seem, at this point, that these men were surely all doomed. Yet the tugboats never gave up. Though they were themselves being battered by the weather, they kept circling faithfully, the eyes of their crews searching the debris for every hint of a man in the water. One after another, survivors describe being seized by the arm, by the collar, by the strap of a life jacket, by their hair, being yanked into the air and dropped onto the crowded deck of a tug.

The decks of the tugs were awash with waves, the tug crews were sometimes swept overboard and needed rescuing themselves, but they kept going. The Captain John, despite being the smallest tugpulled 89 men from the water, the North Carolina got 54 more, and the Ducker Tide arrived in time to save 79 lives. Of the 245 crewmen aboard the sunken barge, 222 were accounted for at the end of that weary day.

The remaining 23 were presumed to have died, as surely none could live much longer in the sea. But the survival battle was actually not finished yet. Fifteen men, including the teenage deckhand, were still alive, clinging to the only portion of the barge which remained above water — the 260-foot boom of the giant derrick. These fifteen managed to keep their grip on this precarious perch through several days of cold winds and dashing spray until they were finally spotted from the air and saved.

Of the eight who remained missing, only five bodies were ever recovered. Investigations were called to look into reports of faulty life jackets and inadequate training for the support crew, many of whom were landsmen who had no previous experience at sea. Then there were the questions of whether the barge ought to have headed for port before Roxanne’s first approach, or if she had not done so then, whether she ought to have done so during the interval when the leaks were first discovered. Were the leaks an ongoing problem predating the storm, as many of the crew insisted?

But the crew never had the legal backing or resources to battle the company. The Mexican deck hands were given a small settlement and forbidden to sue. The American dive crew were given larger settlements, but also had to agree not to sue. The case ended there.

What stays in my mind, though, are the moments of individual courage and heroism, especially by the tugboat crews. When a hurricane is threatening your own boat, when you have just seen a larger neighbor sink with all hands, when 245 men are just specks bobbing in 40-foot waves, scattering rapidly in the storm, it seems impossible that there would be anything you could do that would make any difference. Yet the tugboats stayed on the job, focused on finding one man at a time, and one by one, they saved the lives of almost every man who went into the sea.

Whoever had messed up, it wasn’t the tugboat captains and their crews.