In the early morning darkness of Oct. 24, the S.S. Poet steamed down the Delaware River from the port of Philadelphia carrying a cargo of corn and a crew of 34 men bound for Port Said, Egypt.
The skipper, LeRoy A. Warren of Bel Air, Md., had logged 41 years at sea, and many of his crew were similar old hands, with home ports from Mobile to Maine. Their 522-foot ship, where the sale of alcohol was forbidden and the crew held nightly prayer meetings, was a converted World War II troop carrier, old but sturdy, by most accounts.
The Poet, due in Egypt Nov. 9, has not been seen nor heard from in more than a month.
Its last communication, a brief message as it sailed past Cape Henlopen, Del. came at 8:30 a.m. Oct 24. A day later, a freak storm with 30-foot high seas and winds gusting up to 60 knots welled up in the North Atlantic. In its years at sea, the Poet had survived worse.
Yet, it seems to have disappeared without a trace, the first U.S. flag vessel to do so in many years. An extensive search, involving up to nine aircraft at one time and covering a total of 393,000 square miles in 10 days, failed to find so much as a life raft of piece of debris to mark the passage of the Poet.
It left instead a number of unanswered questions: Did the ship, which had passed Coast Guard inspections, sink, and if so, how and where? Why did the ship fail to signal its distress? And why did the owner wait nine days to report it missing?
A marine board of investigation, which began here this week, so far has served mainly to deepen the mystery and to add to the misery of the friends and families who wait for definitive answers.
The relatives who crowded the courtroom cringed as the panel's president, Coast Guard Capt. Herbert G. Lyons, referred to "the last voyage of the Poet" and lawyers urged a "quick presumption of death" for insurance and estate purposes.
There were plenty of teasers, clues for those who wished to regard them as such. Mostly, they were dismissed by the experts as insignificant.
First, there was the revelation that the ship listed a quarter degree to starboard before its departure. Then came the news that the bow rested two feet deeper in the water than the stern, according to a surveyor who inspected the Poet before it sailed from South Philadelphia's Giard Point.
Some captains like it that way, the surveyor said, and this skipper said he would correct the imbalance by shifting barrels of fuel.
The Delaware River pilot who brought the ship out to sea pronounced it difficult to steer, but not significantly so. "They handle sluggish in that particular area, anyway, because you're in a narrow channel," he said.
A Coast Guard inspector told reporters the vessel was "the worst ship I've ever seen" but his official testimony was more tempered. He said that tanks of compressed oxygen and acetylene, used for welding repairs, were improperly secured and that the ship lacked a required elecronic navigational aid.
The chief mate, the inspector said, "had a very nonchalant attitude about everything" but "told me he would take care of it."
Families, grasping at straws, sepculated that one of the steamer's holds, whose hatch the inspectors couldn't open, contained secret weapons. But according to testimony and other evidence, that hold was empty.
Heightening the sense of mystery was a report, in the middle of the hearings, that another ship owned by the same company had disappeared. But that vessel, the S.S. Flora, eventually limped into the Azores.
The owner of the Poet became a tempting target for those seeking to pin blame. Henry J. Bonnabel, 75 percent owner of the ship, cried at the hearing, as he had at a Coast Guard press briefing before. The families of the missing crew members said Bonnabel was simply crying crocodile tears.
To some of the families of the missing crew, Bonnabel, 55, a balding moustached man with corporate ties to 20 shipping firms, was responsible, even he professed personal anguish over the apparent tragedy.
Bonnabel said the Poet was built in 1944 and made two trips as a troop carrier before being put in mothballs for 20 years. She was overhauled in 1965 and went into commercial service, traveling betgween the East and West for Bethlehem Steel under the name of Port-Mar. The 522-foot vessel was acquired in 1979 by Bonnabel's company, the Hawaiian Eugenia Corp., of which he is the sole official.
"In effect, this ship," he began, breaking into sobs. Later, he continued, "I was trying to say this vessel is only 15 years old. I'm sorry, I can't talk about this ship. It's the equivalent of buying a '44 Cadillac and putting it on blocks for all these years." Again, he was overcome.
Bonnabel said he wasn't worried when the ship failed to make its regular 48-hour reports for several days. He said such a communications gap was not unusual and he assumed atmospheric conditions or other transmitting difficulties were the cause.
"You knew where this vessel was all along!" shouted Marvin I. Barish, a lawyer representing several families. "You knew the route and you knew where it was and you did nothing!"
On Wednesday morning, Barish bounded into the old customs building here with what he regarded as significant news. Bonnabel had been the president of another company that owned the Silver Dove, also a vintage steamship that had sunk. "He cried at the deposition, too," Barish said.
According to the official report of the incident, the sugar-carrying Silver Dove sank in the Pacific without loss of life in 1973 because of rusted and leaking hull plates. "Older general cargo vessels . . . whose age and inherent difficulty of inspection increase the likelihood of seawater leakage, tend to carry bulk cargoes (such as sugar), some of which, when mixed with water, can threaten the vessel's stability," the report said.
In the case of the Poet, there were reports of some rust and worn rivets, but nothing witnesses considered significant.
"They all say everything was fine -- fine, fine, fine," said Barbara Schmidt of Elkins Park, Pa., whose son was aboard the Poet. "Apparently, everything wasn't fine."
Why had the Coast Guard waited four days after the owner had reported the ship missing to begin its own search? If a distress signal had been received, the search would have begun sooner, the Coast Guard said.
A battery of a dozen lawyers, representing families, unions, the ship's owners and insurers, joined in the questioning. It was, the lawyers privately acknowledged, a cheap form of discovery for the lawsuits the families already have filed.
"We're trying to learn who shot J. R.," said one lawyer. But after a dozen witnesses and 127 exhibits, the puzzle remained.
"They're burying our guys under a pile of paper," said Charlotte Carrino, 19, originally from Baltimore and married for just nine months to Christopher Carrino, one of the missing. "These hearings are not for us."
While the testimony droned on, some of the spectators dozed and families wandered in and out of the hearing room. "I'm sick and tired of the words 'assumption' and 'standard procedure,' I'll tell you," said Anne Bradley, whose 24-year old son sailed on the Poet. "I just want to stand up and scream."
Marie Bourbonnsais of Newark, Del., said her husband, Anthony, took the job as third assistant engineer although he told her, "nobody wanted it because it was an old ship and who wants to go to Egypt? He said, 'I'm thinking of taking the job so I can be home in January and shovel snow and be with you and the kids.'"
Coleman O'Donoghue, 24, of Potomac, Md., had sailed on the Poet's prior voyage and decided only at the last moment to spend the holidays with his girlfried instead of going to Egypt. He had offered to testify but nobody asked him, and so he came to the hearing as a spectator.
"When I was on it, I never once felt scared," he said. "We were always hoping for rought weather, just to knock around a little bit. I tell you, the ocean is powerful, but you don't think about it until you releaize the closest land to you is two miles straight down."
While not religious, he attended the prayer sessions run by the chief cook and Frank E. Holland, the deck engineer from Dundalk, Md. "They used to say prayers for everything,' he said. 'they'd even throw the sip in there every now and then."
Several of the crew members, he said, were nearing retirement. "Most of these sailors don't care where they're going. They're just out there to make their money." Many prefer to be paid in crisp consecutively numbered $100 bills, considered a form of insurance against shipowner's insolvency.
"A couple of guys told me they go out there to relax," O'Donoghue said, "to get away from all the problems of being at home. Total withdrawal. Peace of mind."
But there is no peace of mind for the friends and families of the ill-fated crew. Their telegrams to the White House have gone unanswered, their pleas for a renewed search unheeded. There is instead anger and despair and, in a few cases, a sense of reluctant resignation.
The Bradley family has held a memorial mass for the fourth oldest of their 14 children. "It lifted our spirits," Anne Bradley said. "It was for [our son], wherever he is."