For actions taken on February 27, 1984:
The Maritime Administration does not have the original Gallant Ship Award citation for this vessel.
Halter Marine in Lockport, Louisiana, built the offshore supply vessel M/V Starlight in 1976, for Offshore Logistics Inc. Offshore supply vessels, or OSVs, deliver supplies at sea, and aid oil derricks in movement and anchoring. Starlight was 196-feet-long, 460-gross-tons, and featured a bridge in the bow and large flat aft decks for heavy cargo. On February 27, 1984, Starlight was south of Grand Isle, Louisiana, supporting mobile offshore drilling unit, or MODU, Pernod 76 with another OSV named MV Liberator. 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.
M/V Starlight learned of the crisis from MODU Pernod 76. The MODU dispatcher sent Starlight, and M/V Liberator to assist M/V Enterprise. The 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 HH-3 Coast Guard helicopter on scene rescued another three. Two crewmen died during the rescue and another two were never recovered and presumed deceased after an extensive search. The OSVs continued to search for 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.”
The Eighth Coast Guard District Commander in New Orleans recognized the three vessels for their heroic actions on 26 and 27 of February 1984 and all three vessels received Gallant Ship Awards. The respective masters received Merchant Marine Meritorious Service Medals, and the crews received Letters of Commendation.
Starlight changed hands and flags in 1991. The new owners renamed it Veesa Zricon and flagged it to the Caiman Islands. In 2000, it became Zircon, and was again sold in 2012, to a Saudi Arabian company. The vessel is now named Al MIJIL XXXVI and operates in Saudi Arabia.