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The Athenian Venture disaster

Columns of thick, black smoke rose from the bifurcated oil tanker. Its cargo of 10 million gallons of unleaded gasoline poured into the Atlantic Ocean, feeding massive pools of flame which stretched 500 feet in diameter.

Above, the oil tanker Athenian Venture burns. Right, Jadwiga and Czeslaw Szulkowski.

Canadian Coast Guard ship  Hudson, on its way from the Bedford Institute of Oceanography in Dartmouth, N.S., to the Gulf Stream, arrived onsite earlier the previous evening, having responded to a relayed distress message.

Initially, crew members thought two ships had collided. The darkness and smoke were impenetrable, and the Hudson’s spotlights could reveal little but silhouettes. The crew could see a partial name stencilled on a bow, the paint bubbled and distorted, and the letter “K” bolted onto an engine funnel.

By daylight, having completed an unsuccessful search for survivors, the full horror of the wreck was revealed. The ship was the Athenian Venture, a Greek-owned and Polish-crewed 500-foot oil tanker. The vessel had broken apart after catching fire 350 nautical miles southeast of Cape Race while en route from Amsterdam to New York.

By afternoon, the bow had sunk in a vortex of smoke and flame. According to an early report by Reuters, a Lloyd’s of London casualty officer stated, “It’s one of the worst tanker incidents I’ve ever heard of.”

• • •

The Athenian Venture disaster claimed the lives of 29 people — 24 crew and five wives. Forty-three children were orphaned.

For more than two decades, they have been left wondering what caused the disaster.

The disaster was felt particularly hard in the Polish city of Gdynia, where five of the crewmen originated, including Sebastian Szulkowski’s father, motorman Czeslaw Szulkowski and his wife, Jadwiga.

Sebastian returned home from school to find his house filled with family. They were huddled around the television watching the state-run news. Grainy images of the burning hulk that had been his father’s ship flashed across the screen. A lifeboat was missing from the ship’s stern, and all hope lay in finding survivors.

The badly burned body of chief engineer Andrzej Szukalski was pulled from the ocean. Because of the similarity in their surnames, Sebastian’s family at first believed his father had been saved. The truth was devastating.

Sebastian’s memories of the days following the disaster are cloudy. He was just nine years old. He says he forced himself to forget.

Away at sea

Sebastian’s father was a merchant marine who had spent his entire adult life at sea. Sebastian barely knew him and had seen his father only a few times when he was very young.

Sebastian had been raised by his mother, Jadwiga Szulkowski, and his grandparents.

Under communist rule, travel outside of the country was often difficult. For her, the opportunity to go aboard the Athenian Venture and cross the Atlantic Ocean was seen as a grand adventure. She wanted to spend time with Sebastian’s father and to see New York.

It was to be Czeslaw’s final trip, and there was the possibility that upon their return they might start a whole new life together. Those hopes went down with the vessel.

Four days after the accident, there was the chance of definitive answers. The charred hulk that was the stern was taken in tow by two Spanish trawlers with the intention of pulling it to Vigo Bay, Spain. It was boarded and the remains of seven crew members were found, as well as the engine log book, scrap log book and personal letters written by two crewmen to their wives.

On June 17, the wreck suddenly sank. Questions remain as to why. The official version of events is that problems arose during bad weather, despite the fact that the stern had remained afloat for six weeks.

Polish government documents indicate the Spaniards attempt­ed to ransom pictures and videos of the bodies for $3 million. For the families, it would prove a setback to their search for answers from the corrupt and murky world of transnational shipping.

The 1980s was a period of instability for the oil industry. As the price of oil plummeted to $10 a barrel — companies such as Athenian, which transported an estimated 18 per cent of the world’s oil supply — felt intense pressure to save money, and a culture of cutting corners took hold.

Companies slashed spending, reduced tanker crews and began to stretch equipment.

According to a report by the Wall Street Journal, Paul Slater, the former chairman of the ship finance firm First International Financial Corp., said, “The majority of large tankers are out of date, over age and in many cases poorly maintained.”

Maintenance inspections are often the responsibility of classification societies which are paid by ship owners to determine whether or not their vessel is seaworthy. Similarly, some state flags use their services to conduct obligatory surveys. Ship owners often choose societies that will cost them the least, and breaches in regulations frequently go unreported.

Soon after the disaster, the owner, Patron Marine Co. Ltd., as well as the English insurers, Liverpool and London Steamship Protection and Indemnity Association, issued statements which emphasized the ship had been inspected by the U.S. coast guard twice that year and had undergone a complete inspection in Piraeus, Greece in November 1987 by two Polish Register of Shipping surveyors. It was their belief that bad weather, possibly an iceberg, had directly contributed to the loss.

The distress message said a 45-foot hull plate had come loose and water was flooding the hold.

The casualty investigation re­veal­ed irregularities in the Polish Register of Shipping survey which had been conducted only weeks prior to the sinking.

Sebastian Szulkowski remembers a small gathering of victims’ families, and not much else. They were kept in the dark by the companies involved and, in some cases, had no knowledge of each other’s existence. Much of the information they received was from state-run news reports.

Families were pressed by agents of the Warsaw branch of Athenian Tankers to accept a nominal compensation package.

Szulkowski, now a paralegal for an American firm based in Warsaw representing international clients, maintains that the wife of mate Ryszard Stelmaszky was ordered to hand over letters from her husband which indicated the ship’s deplor­able condition. Intense pressure fuelled suspicions that there was more to the official storyline.

Families sought legal action against Athenian Tankers Inc. — which has holdings in Louisiana and New York — through Baton Rouge maritime lawyer Richard Dodson.

The negligence suit filed in New York State Supreme Court alleged “callous and wanton disregard of the obligations to furnish a sea worthy vessel.”

The action sought $60 million in actual damages and $25 million in punitive damages.

In response to the allegations, Patron Marine Co. Ltd. released a statement emphasizing that the ship had complied with international safety standards.

Correspondence between the victims’ families and their lawyer was filtered through the Polish Chamber of Commerce’s Damage Commission, a government agency designed to assist victims of maritime accidents and to investigate allegations of wrongdoing. Communication and language barriers resulted in little real information being made available to them.

Left with nothing but a small state pension, the families agreed to the company’s proposed settlement.

“Even our American lawyer didn’t know about this until it was signed,” Szulkowski said.

Their claim was then withdrawn from American courts.

• • •

As part of a routine investigation, which took two years to complete, Polish representatives from the Ministry of Transport, Trade, Shipping and Communication helped the Cypriot government in collecting evidence.

Four months before the disaster, four crewmen had ended their contracts after complaining of fatigue. The marine casualty investigation required them to stand before the Marine Chamber in Gdynia (Admiralty Court).

Chief mechanic Jan Rogowski, responsible for all welding works, testified that after departing from New York, an oil mist was seen leaking from the ship. The cargo was poured into a separate tank and repairs were completed at sea. Another leak occurred after they departed from Punta Cardone, Venezuela.

Rogowski wasn’t aware of whether the captain informed the ship’s owner. Major repair work, including fixing metal sheets, is prohibited during a ship’s voyage. Any deviation results in a loss of the ship’s certificate.

He also claimed the metal sheets welded onto the ship in Piraeus were without certification.

The ship’s scrap log book corroborated the testimony of former crewmen. The vessel had sustained hull damage in a number of places between January and April 1988.

During March 1988, six welds were completed — most of them at sea.

In a letter to his family, seaman Richard Stelmszczyk wrote, “The ship has a crack in the middle deck, and we don’t know what will happen. We’ll go to the shipyard, for sure, but the problem is getting there safely. If we catch bad weather, the ship might not stand it. The ship owner is afraid of losing her.”

Similarly, motorman Zbigniew Jurszo wrote, “The deck is catching cracks, and there are holes in the ship’s hull. We are losing cargo.”

• • •

The Marine Casualty Report, completed by the Cypriot government and released to the International Maritime Organization in 1992, concluded that “weather conditions imposed loads on the hull which could not be sustained.”

The report’s findings contradict eye-witness testimony made available to the ship’s insurers.

Interviewed by Lloyd’s of London, a crewmember of the Hudson said that on the night of the explosion, the sea was relatively calm.

The government-appointed representative at the hearings was professor Jerzy Doerffer, a world-renowned expert in ship building. He developed his own informal opinion of what happened:

“The tragedy of the Athenian Venture occurred because the ship was in poor technical condition. This is certain.”  

Twenty years have passed with the families having no clear picture of what caused the disaster. Szulkowski contacted other families to share information. Many weren’t even aware of the Marine Casualty Investigation.

He wrote to the Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure and the Canadian Department of Trade and Foreign Affairs without success.

Letters to the U.S. coast guard had a similar result.

Shocking discovery

Szlkowski continued to dig for over a year.

Then, as a student at the University of Warsaw, Szulkowski visited the National Archives of New Records, a short walk from his place of employment. It was there that he discovered more than 800 pages of government documents relating to the Maritime Casualty Investigation and its subsequent report.

Having little hope of finding anything, the discovery came as shock. It was first time he had even heard of an investigation into the Athenian Venture disaster.

“I couldn’t imagine they were so close to me,” he said.

The only pictures he had seen were blurry news footage and grainy snapshots. In the hope of finding someone who had witnessed the disaster and its aftermath, Szulkowski contacted the Canadian Coast Guard and was put in touch with leading seaman Greg Maclellan.

Many seamen have extensive photographic archives. Maclellan, who had participated in search and rescue during the Ocean Ranger disaster and the crash of Swiss Air Flight 111, had kept photos of the burning wreck and its eventual sinking.

“Sebastian knew little about how his parents had died,” Maclellan said. “It was a pretty emotional moment for him.”

Since then, Szulkowski has contacted other victims’ families. They hope the Polish government will reopen the case and launch a public inquiry where the company would have to answer hard-pressing questions.

A firm of Polish engineers specializing in maritime accident investigations has offered its assistance and is examining what could have caused the explosion.

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