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U.S. Coast Guard Series - The Thames Ablaze

February 26, 2019

Each month, an interesting aspect of the world’s oldest continuous maritime service will be highlighted. The men and women of the United States Coast Guard follow in the fine tradition of the brave mariners who have served before them. As sentinels and saviors of the seas, the United States Coast Guard proudly continues its commitment to honor, respect & devotion to duty to maintain their vigil - Semper Paratus.
The Thames Ablaze
Mrs. Larsen hurried into their humble quarters on the Tod Estate. “Come quick,” she frantically yelled to her husband, “and bring your binoculars.” The caretaker of the estate stood up from his chair, grabbed his binoculars and joined his wife outside. The estate, located on the Connecticut coastline, was at a perfect vantage point. His wife did not have to point or explain what she had seen. Training his binoculars ou
t over the waters of the Long Island Sound, a ship was on fire. The floating pyre, based on Mr. Larsen’s observation, was on a westward course.  Suddenly the engulfed vessel turned toward the Sound’s northern coastline. As the flames leaped skyward from the decks of the ship, Mr. Larsen handed the binoculars to his wife and raced to the main house of the estate. Mrs. Tod telephoned the Sound Beach Fire Department. Meanwhile, the unknown fiery vessel continued on her course for Connecticut.
Earlier in the evening, the freighter Thames had set out from Pier Thirty-Two in New York City, with her first planned stop at Norwalk, Connecticut. Facing thirty-mile hour winds and rough sea conditions, Captain Robert J. Sherman kept a steady course and speed through the Long Island Sound. As the freighter passed two miles south of Captain’s Island, the report of a fire near the smoke stack reached the bridge. Moments later, as a blanket of suffocating smoke enveloped the freighter, the once small fire had erupted into a full conflagration. There was little hope o

f saving the freighter. Captain Sherman ordered the lifeboats to be lowered and then returned to the bridge where he found the pilot, Captain Hancort. The pilot quickly informed the skipper of his plan. While fire and flames continued to envelop the entire ship, Hancort spun the wheel and took a course that would hopefully beach the Thames. Utilizing a piece of line, he lashed the helm so that the freighter would remain on course. Captain Hancort then escaped to the boat deck. Captain Sherman entered into one of the boats but Captain Hancort had other plans. Believing the lifeboat was overloaded he wished the officers and crew good luck. He ran over and leaped from the deck into the water.  Immediately, the crew began fighting for their lives. Despite the rough sea conditions, both lifeboats were successfully launched. Captain Sherman, believing his crew had been accounted for, ordered the boats to be cut free from their rigging. The men desperately rowed through the swells to get clear from the fire-ravaged Thames.
While Captain Sherman and his crewmen fought desperately to negotiate the swells and escape the clutches of the smoke and fire, the seas had other plans. The lifeboats were separated in the maelstrom and within moments, the lifeboat carrying Captain Sherman and eleven other men capsized spilling them into the cold waters of the Long Island Sound. The men desperately clutched to the upturned hull of the lifeboat and prayed that their lifebelts would keep them afloat until rescued. Men screamed for help but there was no sight of refuge from their situation. The men tread water and prayed for salvation as the floating furnace careened northward on a collision course with the Connecticut coast. Captain Sherman scanned through the darkness for the other lifeboat but couldn’t find it on the horizon.
Forty-five minutes after the freighter had been abandoned, the steamer Lexington moved into sight of the fiery vessel. Her captain immediately had the United States Coast Guard notified of the situation and ordered his men to scan for lifeboats and survivors on the horizon. Believing that the freighter must have been abandoned by its captain and crew, he altered his course to retrace the course of the wayward ship. At ten minutes past nine, wreckage and some men were spotted in the water. The Lexington stopped her engines and lowered a small boat to render aid. Within a few minutes, nine men, including Captain Sherman had been pulled from the waters of the Long Island Sound. Captain Sherman prayed that the remaining men of his freighter had been saved by another passing vessel. Finally, the name of the stricken freighter was known.
The Thames had been constructed and launched in 1883 with her maiden name the City of Gloucester. She was one hundred and forty-two feet in length with a forty-two foot beam. Owned by the Thames River Line, the five-hundred ton freighter normally plied between New York City and various ports along the River Thames delivering cargo. On this particular run, the Thames was ferrying a cargo of sugar, oil, and excelsior with a value of thirty-thousand dollars. On the night of April 24th, 1930, her forty-seven years of merchant service had ended in a horrific fire.
The wireless messages sent to the United States Coast Guard had immediately roused the men from their quiet evening and into action. Coastguardsmen, from various stations dotted along the north and south shores of the Long Island Sound, raced to the scene. Meanwhile, her decks and hull aglow, the Thames collided with a sandbar off of Sound Beach roughly five hundred yards from shore. Two firemen from the Sound Beach Fire Department, Arthur Schlagel and William Cuff joined Patrolman Thomas Dean of the Police Department in a small boat to try and see if anyone was still aboard. Though heroic, their efforts to render assistance were futile as the heat from the blaze limited their ability to get close enough. The freighter would have to burn itself out.
As the Lexington continued to scour the waters for survivors, word was received that the United States Coast Guard Patrol Boat 125, with Coastguardsman C.J. Barrett in command, had located the Thames’ other lifeboat. Nine additional members of the freighter’s crew had been saved but there were sixteen others who remained unaccounted for. The various vessels of the United States Coast Guard in addition to several other Sound steamers continued to search throughout the night and into the early morning.
With the new day’s dawn, the search continued. Sadly, the efforts were fruitless. Over the course of the day, the United States Coast Guard, utilizing four seventy-five foot patrol boats in addition to the U.S.C.G. Destroyers Porter and Ammen, had scoured roughly fifty-square miles of water with no luck. Sadly, it was determined that sixteen men had lost their lives as a result of the horrific and quick spreading fire that engulfed the freighter Thames, including the pilot, Captain Hancort.  Anchoring for the evening nearby the now smoldering Thames, the United States Coast Guard would commence the search the following morning.
As the patrol boats and destroyers of the United States Coast Guard continued their search, Dickerson N. Hoover, Chief of the Steamboat Inspection Service ordered an immediate investigation commenced. Formed in 1871, the Steamboat Inspection Service had been established after a series of deadly steamboat incidents. The inspectors of the New Haven, Connecticut office would be in charge of the investigation. If criminal negligence was discovered, the Department of Justice would take action. While statements were collected in the Board of Inquiry, the Thames continued to smolder on the sand bar that had stopped her fatal run toward shore. Captain Sherman and Chief Engineer Clarence Tibbetts were fearful that some of the sixteen missing men had been trapped in their bunks and had not been able to escape the floating furnace.
Despite the investigator’s valiant attempt to discover what had caused the Thames’ fatal fire, little information could be gathered from the charred remains of the freighter. Never was the final cause known in the fire that had left sixteen men dead in its wake. Despite the efforts of the United States Coast Guard in her rescue efforts and then in recovery, little more was found in the waters of the Long Island Sound. Though the investigators of the Steamboat Inspection Service attempted to ascertain the cause, they too had been unsuccessful in their efforts to identify the cause.
The men and women of the United States Coast Guard continue, each and every day, to stand ready to race into action when duty calls. Despite their willingness to face adversity, there are instances when they can do little to stem the tide of fate for those facing death or loss at sea. The fire onboard the freighter Thames on April 24, 1930 serves as a testament to the dangers on commercial vessels and how quickly a fire can spread onboard and imperil the safety of her ship’s officers, crew, and passengers. Harkening to the days of the Steamboat Inspection Service, the inspectors of the United States Coast Guard provide a herculean effort to ensure that all commercial vessels and their licensed officers and crew are in keeping with the regulations set forth to minimize and avert such deadly catastrophes in the present and in the future. It is this dedication to their enforcement that makes them truly sentinels and saviors of the seas.  

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