A fierce storm with 60-knot winds and 30-foot waves probably capsized the SS Poet, an American grain ship bound for Egypt that disappeared along with its 34-man crew without a trace somewhere in the Atlantic last October.
That is the explanation considered most likely by government marine experts whose findings were disclosed this week. They speculate that the capsizing occurred so suddenly -- as succeeding waves battered the 552-foot corn-carrying ship -- that there was no time to send distress signals.
The mystery of the largest U.S. ship to simply disappear in modern times was addressed -- but not fully solved -- Tuesday by the National Transportation Safety Board and yesterday by the House Merchant Marine Committee.
Members of both bodies were less tentative in their criticisms of the ship's owner and of the Coast Guard for allegedly delaying actions that might have saved lives.
The 10-day lapse between the Poet's departure from Philadelphia Oct. 24 and the owner's call to the Coast Guard Nov. 3, the safety board charged, "may have contributed to the loss of life." The Coast Guard's failure to begin an active search until five more days had passed "decreased the probability of finding survivors," the board said.
The owner, Henry J. Bonnabel, cried yesterday as he described what the loss meant to him, even as he rejected the criticism as unfounded.
Bonnabel, who has owned several other vessels of the Poet's World War II vintage that have experienced problems at sea, is being sued for $30 million by the families of the crew members. "All of us who have had any involvement with the Poet have been hurt by the tragic loss," he said.
Despite prior testimony that the Poet had regularly reported its position every 48 hours in several previous voyages, Bonnabel said he wasn't worried when the vessel failed to call in as scheduled. Such communication lapses are common on the high seas where atmospheric conditions may interfere with transmission, he said.
Vice Admiral Robert I. Price, Coast Guard commander of the Atlantic region, echoed Bonnabel's view in explaining why the service did not initiate an aerial search sooner.
"We've been dealing with radio communications in the state Marconi left it 60 to 70 years ago," he said. "It's impossible to get across the fact that unreliable radio communication is a fact of life."
Procedures followed, he testified before the congressional committee, were "correct and adequate." To have taken another course of action would have required officials to assume "the unthinkable" -- that a ship the Poet's size had failed to survive a storm that had buffeted but not sunk lesser craft in the same vicinity.
Price ordered the eventual 10-day airplane search, he said, only against the advice of his own experts, after politicians, families and union officials began bombarding the Coast Guard with telephone calls. In Price's report to his Coast Guard superiors in February, he complained of pressure from "uneducated citizens" and urged, "don't sanction the imposition of outside influences."
"I was being told, 'do something, even if it's wrong,'" he said yesterday. "It was a no-win situation, needing a miracle, and we just didn't get one."
Neither his nor Bonnabel's answers satisfied Rep. Thomas Foglietta (R-Pa.), from whose South Philadelphia district the Poet embarked. "No one seems to be taking responsibility for this vessel, neither the owner, nor the Coast Guard," the legislator said.
Nor did they satisfy the crew members' families, who had come from as far away as Florida and Philadelphia in search of answers. Their unabated anguish was apparent as, wearing blue ribbons and carrying cassette recorders, they listened intently to the hearings.
"I got no answers," said Elizabeth Jackson, whose husband Carl was the ship's cook, of this week's hearings.
Several of the families clung to the fact that there are as yet no conclusive answers to forever dash their hopes.
"Maybe I'm crazy," said Mary Connors of Somerdale, N.J., the mother of another Poet crew member, "but I think they're still safe somewhere."