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Tim Blagg

Blagg: Salvaged from the sea

In the early morning hours of Sept. 25, 1925, a small dark shape made its way toward the open Atlantic off Block Island, R.I.

She was the U.S. submarine S-51, with a crew of 32. Lookouts aboard the sub spotted a small freighter, the SS City of Rome, on a converging course.

The Rules of the Road mandated that the sub maintain her course, allowing the freighter to alter its heading to avoid a collision. But despite the lights being shown aboard S-51, the freighter continued on toward a meeting point.

So the sub’s commander, Lt. Rodney H. Dobson, ordered a change.

At the last minute, to his horror, he saw that the freighter had also changed course, and the two vessels collided. The City of Rome’s bow punched a fatal hole in the sub’s hull and within minutes she had plunged to the ocean floor, 150 feet below.

Only three of the 38 crew members survived the freezing water — the City of Rome did not stop to pick them up.

In the three years following the sinking, a Navy salvage crew, under the command of Lt. Cmdr. Edward Ellsberg, succeeded in raising S-51 — and her drowned crew — to the surface and in towing her to the Brooklyn Navy Yard.

It was an unprecedented feat. New techniques and tools had to be invented on the spot. A new underwater cutting torch (the Ellsberg Torch), a new hose nozzle for washing away ocean bottom, specially designed buoyancy pontoons and a method of placing them next to the sub, new portable floodlights ... a whole host of cutting-edge work was necessary to make the salvage possible.

Several men were seriously injured by working at that depth, which was at the limit for the hard-hat diving suits of the day ... scuba gear had not yet been invented.

The loss of S-51, and of S-1 a few years later, forced the Navy to rethink its submarine rescue procedures, and as a result the McCann rescue bell and Momsen escape gear were invented and distributed.

Ellsberg’s classic book on the S-51 salvage effort, “On The Bottom” is one of my favorites, as are his others on his work during WWII in North Africa, Ethiopia and Normandy, for which he was promoted to rear admiral and awarded the Order of the British Empire.

I was reminded of all this while watching the salvage work on the cruise ship Costa Concordia, 20 months after it ran aground off the island of Giglio, Italy.

The work on the Costa Concordia — a 114,000-gross-ton ship that’s 951 feet long — is the biggest ever.

True. But let’s not forget that a British salvage expert raised five of the sunken German battleships in Scapa Flow after they were scuttled by their crews following WWI. And after the Pearl Harbor attack, the Navy successfully returned to service six of the eight battleships sunk or damaged by the Japanese. Those ships displaced about 30,000 tons and were 600 feet long — not a simple job, to be sure.

The cruise ship was lying on its side on the rocks, so the salvagers attached metal boxes to the upper side and then ran cables from them under the ship to large winches on the shore. By pumping water into the boxes and pulling on the cables, they succeeded in rolling the ship upright into a steel frame on the bottom of the sea.

Next, they will attach similar boxes to the other side and then pump air into both sets, providing enough buoyancy to refloat the ship.

Then it’s off to a drydock in Sicily to be cut up for scrap.

The accident killed 32 people, and the captain is on trial for manslaughter. The salvage project has, so far, cost more than $800 million and is expected to cost much more before the operation is complete.

As was the case in the S-51 disaster, the root cause was human error and the real price was paid in human lives.

Blagg has been Editor of The Recorder since 1986. He lives in Greenfield and is a military historian with an interest in local history. He can be reached at: tblagg@recorder.com or 413-772-0261, ext. 250.

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