USA Banner

Official US Government Icon

Official websites use .gov
A .gov website belongs to an official government organization in the United States.

Secure Site Icon

Secure .gov websites use HTTPS
A lock ( ) or https:// means you’ve safely connected to the .gov website. Share sensitive information only on official, secure websites.

Site Notification

Site Notification

U.S. Department of Transportation U.S. Department of Transportation Icon United States Department of Transportation United States Department of Transportation


Pilot Boat San Francisco working off the city of San Francisco. (Photo provided by Chris Colberg).  

For Actions on October 31, 1984

Gallant Ship Award Citation

On October 31, 1984, the Chemical Tanker PUERTO RICAN, with a cargo of chemicals and lubricating oil was departing San Francisco Bay. The Pilot Boat SAN FRANCISCO was making its routine approach to lee of the PUERTO RICAN to pick up the pilot, Captain James S. Nolan, who had been released from his duties by the Master of the vessel, when a violent explosion occurred onboard the PUERTO RICAN. Captain Nolan, the PUERTO RICAN’s Third Officer and an A.B. were blown into the sea some 150 feet away from the vessel by the force of the explosion. The chemical residue created by the tremendous explosion fell over hundreds of yards around the ship. The chemical substance covered the windshield and windows of the SAN FRANCISCO, making visibility difficult. The alarm was sounded and the Captain and crew manned emergency rescue stations and began an immediate search of the area without regard to possible danger of additional explosions and of exposure to possibly hazardous chemical fallout. The Captain and the crew were able to track the screams of the Third Officer and located the injured men. The Pilot Boat’s Jenson Retrieval Net was skillfully used to bring the men onboard. Due to the seriousness of the injuries, a Coast Guard helicopter was called to evacuate the injured men to shore. With the evacuation completed, the SAN FRANCISCO continued to search for the missing A.B. until relieved. The body of the A.B. was never found.

The expert seamanship and the teamwork of her captain and crew are credited with saving the lives of Captain Nolan and the Third Officer and earned the name of the Pilot Boat SAN FRANCISCO to be perpetuated as a Gallant Ship.

Pilot Boat San Francisco was an 85 foot-long, 135 gross-ton, single-screw diesel vessel owned by the San Francisco Bar Pilot Benevolent and Protection Association. San Francisco delivered and recovered harbor pilots from vessels in San Francisco Bay. It also functioned as a rescue vessel for pilots who might fall while embarking and disembarking. In July 1984, crewmembers installed a port and a starboard Jenson Retrieval Net. Knud Jenson designed the system specifically for San Francisco. Jenson rigged two 7- by 14-foot nets amidships. He attached one side of each to the handrails and the far side of the nets was lifted and lowered by tackle attached to retractable booms.

At midnight of October 31st, 1984, Master Peter Cowell operated San Francisco with another pilot and four crewmembers. Master Cowell followed the chemical tanker Puerto Rican out of San Francisco Bay with the intention of retrieving the disembarking pilot and then moving on to other vessels awaiting pilotage. Puerto Rican was a 660-foot-long, US-flagged, chemical tankship built in 1971. It featured 27 cargo tanks. Each was lined for specific chemical and liquefied gas cargos. Puerto Rican arrived in San Francisco on October 25, 1984, and took on cargo at multiple locations in San Francisco Bay. When Puerto Rican departed for New Orleans, Louisiana, at midnight on October 31, 1984, it carried 91,984 barrels (3,863,328 gallons) of lubrication oil and additives, and 8,500 barrels (357,000 gallons) of bunker fuel.

That evening the temperature was 55 degrees Fahrenheit and the sea was calm. San Francisco Pilot Captain James S. Nolan boarded Puerto Rican at 0100 at the Richmond Long Wharf, and the ship passed through Golden Gate Bridge at 0300. At 0320, Captain Nolan changed the speed and heading to “dead slow.” Captain Nolan handed control to Puerto Rican’s captain and proceeded to the port side pilot house and ladder. He intended to disembark and board the Pilot Boat San Francisco, which waited 100 yards from the ship. Third Mate Philip R. Lempriere escorted Captain Nolan to assist him in descending the pilot ladder. They met Able Seaman John Peng waiting at the pilot house.

The three men formed a semicircle around the pilot ladder, positioned directly above the 4 Port Wing Tank and adjacent to the 6 Port Center Tank. None of them noticed anything amiss until 0324. Third Mate Lempriere later reported that he heard a hissing sound originating behind him. Captain Nolan heard a click and “whoosh.” He then, “saw a bead of light go diagonally across the deck from the vicinity where AB Peng was standing towards the center of the deck house.” He also detected an odor that was so acrid his nostrils burned. Then he felt the sensation of having the air pulled out of him.

Below decks a chemical reaction occurred when caustic soda leaked out of the 5 Center Port Tank and into a void surrounding the 6 Center Port Tank. The leak occurred sometime prior to Puerto Rican arriving at GATX Terminal, Wilmington, California, on October 21, 1984. Roughly 2,500 to 3,000 barrels of caustic soda leaked through a hole into the void and left two feet of liquid. The corrosive caustic soda reacted with the zinc rich galvanized linings and epoxies of the surrounding void creating explosive hydrogen gas. Alkane 60 also leaked into the void after it was loaded on October 28. This added approximately 1,100 barrels to the cavity. A spark ignited the hydrogen gas, which subsequently ignited the Alkane 60 pool and set off a catastrophic explosion. A 112-foot-long by 90-foot-wide section of the main deck with associated piping and equipment weighing 300 tons flew forward as if on a hinge. It landed inverted on the bow. A Coast Guard C-130 aircraft spotted the explosions. The pilot reported the first explosion sending a fire ball 400-500 feet in the air and another fireball 1,000 feet in the air a second later. The burning Alkane 60 produced flames 50 feet high. Caustic soda fell to the deck as poisonous burning rain.

The explosion blew Nolan, Lempriere, and Peng into the ocean. San Francisco immediately broadcast a MAYDAY to Coast Guard Vessel Traffic Service, San Francisco, and deployed the Jenson Retrieval Nets. Crewmen heard Third Mate Lempriere yelling for help and located both him and Captain Nolan. Nolan suffered from third degree burns and a fractured leg and pelvis, but he instructed the crew to rescue Lempriere first. Nolan insisted on remaining in the water even at risk of hypothermia and toxic chemicals. San Francisco’s crew lifted both men from the water using Jenson’s nets and by 0345, both men were given blankets and brought below decks. Each was covered in an unknown waxy chemical and caustic soda rain continued to fall from the sky.

The crew called for a Coast Guard rescue helicopter and used flares to search for additional survivors. At 0358 the helicopter arrived and hoisted both Nolan and Lempriere. An hour after the explosion both men were in the helicopter and on their way to shore. San Francisco continued to search the water around the flaming Puerto Rican until 0451, when they were relieved. The Coast Guard brought Nolan and Lempriere to Letterman Army Hospital at the Presidio in San Francisco. Both men survived.

Puerto Rican’s remaining crew evacuated at 0526. Able Seamen Peng was never found. The Coast Guard towed the burning vessel seaward to prevent it from jeopardizing other ships or drifting into shore. Puerto Rican burned for another 92 hours. On November 3, the stern broke away and sank 37 miles southwest of Point Bonita, California. Over a million gallons of oil poured into the ocean and washed ashore at Bodega Bay. Less than 5% of the total spill was successfully removed. A floating independent cargo tank and what remained of the Puerto Rican were towed to San Francisco and scrapped.

San Francisco received the Gallant Ship Award on May 17, 1986, for the lifesaving efforts on October 31, 1984. The Maritime Administration awarded Master Peter Cowell a Meritorious Service Medal. The crew received letters of commendation for their role in rescuing Philip Lempriere. Captain James S. Nolan received the Merchant Marine Distinguished Service Medal.

In 2001, San Francisco retired from pilot work and the San Francisco Bar Benevolent Pilots Association donated the vessel to the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute. Monterey Bay renamed San Francisco, Research Vessel Zephyr, and outfitted it with equipment for experiments using underwater autonomous vehicles. Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute sold Zephyr in October 2012. In 2013, Zephyr returned to service and continues to operate as a research vessel. Clients include the United States Navy, Scripps, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).