The company official who oversaw maintenance for the coal freighter Marine Electric said today that to his knowledge hatch covers on the vessel were seaworthy and serviceable.
Joseph Thelgie, fleet director for Marine Transport Line Inc., said he mistrusted a recent report from the hatch cover manuacturer describing the 40-foot wide covers as "weak, wasted, buckled and holed in many places." He said the November report was filed by a man who was "primarily a salesman anyway, trying to peddle his wares."
Thirty-one men died when the 600-foot collier capsized and sank a week ago in a storm off Chincoteague, Va.
Two of the three survivors have told a Marine Board of Investigation here the hatch covers were riddled with holes, ill-fitting and rusty. Both indicated water cascading through them probably started the flooding that eventually sank the ship.
Thelgie said if there were any holes in hatch covers they were temporarily fixed with epoxy glue. He said the covers on Marine Electric thus treated were weathertight.
A November letter to the ship owners from MacGregor Service, which built the covers 20 years ago and maintained them, contained a list of accusations. "The coamings raised borders around hatchways . . . are so wasted there is no strength left to support the weight of the panels," the letter said. "The panels are in an even more serious state of decay. The top plates are weak, wasted, buckled and holed in many places. . . The rubber gasket channels are of an incorrect size and do not fit correctly. . . "
"A judgment as to the seaworthiness. . . of these panels must be examined," it added, "to fully determine their exact state with an eye to the duration of further use, if any."
Thelgie said no repair or replacement work was done on the panels after the letter was received. He said he had conducted no tests for strength of seaworthiness other than noting, "If I can jump up and down on them, usually they're substantial."
Asked if the covers were ever hose-tested for water tightness, he said, "We were in the coal trade; we didn't have time for that."
Thelgie's testimony was the first from a company official in the Coast Guard and National Transportation Safety Board inquiry into the tragedy. Earlier in the day, the five-member panel heard from a port relief mate, a semi-retired merchant mariner who helped oversee coal loading when the Marine Electric was in Norfolk.
The mate, William Long, said Marine Electric Chief Mate Robert M. Cusick told him recently the hatch covers were so bad "he didn't want to run in the North Atlantic anymore," unless they were replaced. Cusick is one of the survivors of the sinking.