For Actions taken on February 27, 1984:
The Maritime Administration does not have the original Gallant Ship Award citation for this vessel.
McDermott New Iberia Shipyard, in New Iberia, Louisiana, built the offshore supply vessel M/V Mark Briley in 1979, for Briley Marine Inc. Briley Marine sold the vessel and it was renamed Liberator. Offshore supply vessels, or OSVs, feature a bridge on the bow with large flat aft decks for carrying heavy cargo. In 1984, White Cap Marine of Morgan City, Louisiana used Liberator to service offshore drilling platforms in the Gulf of Mexico. On February 27, 1984, Liberator joined the M/V Starlight to service the Mobile Offshore Drilling Unit, (MODU), Pernod 76, south of Grand Isle, Louisiana. Pernod 76 received a distress call from an OSV assisting a disabled tanker ship named American Eagle and immediately dispatched Liberator and Starlight to assist.
American Eagle was built in 1959, was 630-feet-long, 33,000-deadweight-tons, and could carry 280,455 barrels of liquid petroleum products. It featured an aft and midship house with crew quarters in both. In 1984, it was owned and operated by the American Foreign Steamship Corporation of New York. On February 23, 1984, the company instructed the captain to proceed from Savannah, Georgia, to Orange, Texas, for the ship to be laid up. The vessel departed Savannah on February 23, 1984. By February 26, American Eagle was underway 110 miles south-southwest of Grand Isle, Louisiana.
The company instructed the crew to clean the tanks and free residual petroleum vapors while en route to Texas. The cleaning process involved pumping steam through a portable air mover to push out gas and scour heating coils in each tank. A plastic nozzle attached to the air mover was lowered through openings into the tanks. At 1054, on February 26, three crewmen lowered the plastic nozzle into center cargo tank number three to begin the process. Steam rushed out of the plastic nozzle causing a static electric charge and a spark, igniting the highly flammable vapor in the tank. The subsequent explosion instantly killed all three crewmen, destroyed the midship house, and tore massive holes in the deck and hull.
After the explosion, the captain headed to the bridge and found it in shambles with an injured crewman, barely standing, at the helm. The explosion propelled the crewman backwards into the overhead panels of the pilothouse. The captain ordered a full stop. After determining the ship was not on fire, the captain then went to the radio room to order an SOS. He discovered that the explosion dislodged the radio equipment and severely injured the radio operator. It took hours to reestablish communications. American Eagle eventually used a multichannel VHF radio to issue a mayday. A Coast Guard helicopter arrived at 1648 and hoisted three injured crewmembers and flew them to Belle Chasse Naval Air Station in Louisiana. After learning of the explosion, the tanker’s owner directed the salvage tug Smit New York to aid American Eagle and tow it to Galveston. Smit New York estimated their arrival time at noon the following day.
American Eagle continued drifting with no control. By 0100, on February 27, the disabled tanker passed within a mile of the MODU Zapata Lexington, a near miss. The weather deteriorated soon after. Seas grew from 3 feet to 18 feet, and finally 30 feet, in a matter of hours. Near tropical storm winds bore down on the crew. American Eagle was soon trapped in a deep trough between the waves. At 1000, it became apparent that on its current course American Eagle would collide with the MODU Sedco 702. Sedco 702 dispatched M/V Enterprise to prevent a collision. Soon after reaching American Eagle, Enterprise towed the tanker out of the trough by the stern, and avoided a catastrophic collision. However, the tow’s force and turbulent seas caused the bow to shake violently. Everything forward of the midship house bent and rolled as if it were on a hinge and crashed into the stern. A large wave struck the damaged stern and water gushed into the empty petroleum tanks and the stern began to sink at midship. The captain and crew abandoned the ship via the starboard lifeboat, but high winds and waves rolled the lifeboat and dumped the crewmen into the heavy seas. Crew now clung to debris and the two capsized lifeboats, while fuel oil leaked out of the sinking vessel, covering the waters.
Enterprise issued a distress call. Pernod 76 answered and sent M/V Liberator and M/V Starlight to assist. The three OSVs positioned themselves 100 feet upwind to catch the survivors as they drifted away from American Eagle. They remained in position despite the harrowing conditions. OSV crewmembers threw lifelines and life rings and pulled weakened survivors from the water. Starlight’s chief engineer dove on the lifeboat and rescued the men clutching to the sides.
Of the 24 crewmembers who went into the water, Starlight rescued eight, Enterprise rescued five, and Liberator rescued six. The first Coast Guard helicopter on scene rescued another three. Two crewmen died during the rescue and another two were never recovered and presumed dead following an extensive search. The OSVs continued to search for the two missing men for hours while survivors onboard received food, comfort, and clothing. American Eagle’s stern succumbed to the waves and sank at 1735, in 1,800 feet of water. It was a day and six hours after the explosion. The bow remained afloat for a short time before also sinking. The U.S. Coast Guard Marine Board of Investigation found that:
“The commendable assistance and lifesaving efforts of the crews of the M/V LIBERATOR, M/V ENTERPRISE and M/V STARLIGHT was heroic and accounted for the saving of most of the lives of those in the water.”
For actions on 27 of February 1984, the M/V Liberator, along with the M/V Enterprise, and M/V Starlight received Gallant Ship Awards. All three played major roles in the rescue of survivors at great peril. The respective masters received Merchant Marine Meritorious Service Medals, and the crews received Letters of Commendation.
In 1985, the Maritime Administration (MARAD) took possession of Liberator. MARAD transferred Liberator to the U.S. Coast Guard in 1989. The Coast Guard needed vessels for their aerostat radar and drug interdiction program. Aerostat radar tracked vessels carrying illicit narcotics with low flying aircraft and ships. Liberator underwent renovations at Halter Marine, Inc. in Lockport, Louisiana. Liberator’s deck received extensive modifications so that it could launch and retrieve the aerostat helium balloon, which reached heights of 2,500 feet. Halter took out the drilling and mud tanks and expanded the fuel capacity to 200,000 gallons from 60,000 gallons. The pilot house and quarters were modernized and improved to house a crew of 29. This included a new electronics room, lounge, galley, and mess deck. Halter also installed a generator to increase power output for the surveillance equipment. The Coast Guard renamed Liberator, Windward Sentry, and it served with the aerostat program until permanently laid up in 1994, in MARAD’s Beaumont Reserve Fleet.