October 31, 1979

Collision of the Motor Tanker Burmah Agate and the Freighter Mimosa

Filed under: Sea Stories — Capn Scott @ 5:04 pm

The freighter Mimosa and the gash from almost being sawed in half by the anchor chain and the rub marks down the hull

The story told by Admiral James Loy… Back then Cdr James Loy:

On Halloween of 1979, I brought CGC Valiant to the pier in Galveston, Texas, after a long law enforcement patrol. We granted liberty and I drove home with my family. Just before 0530 the next morning, my phone rang.

The M/T Burmah Agate, inbound with a full load of fuel, both bunkers and cargo, had collided with the outbound freighter Mimosa just outside the Galveston Bay Entrance Channel. Valiant was underway within an hour to assume the role of On Scene Commander.

The first 24 hours demanded frantic action to save lives and prevent the disaster from escalating. When Valiant arrived, the Burmah Agate lay aground, its superstructure aft completely engulfed in flames with other fires raging along its starboard side and on its forecastle. The Mimosa was also ablaze, but it was making way, not under command, carving huge circles about her starboard anchor, which she had somehow managed to drop. Then-Captain, now retired Rear Admiral, Dave Ciancaglini and two other aircraft commanders led heroic helicopter crews on sortie after sortie to rescue crewmen from the burning decks. The disaster had already killed more than thirty sailors. It promised to get much worse as the slowly circling Mimosa worked its way across the buoyed channel, heading inexorably toward a field of active and capped gas pipes and other anchored shipping.

We got our Rescue and Assistance team aboard the Mimosa, but they could not stop its movement: up forward, the port anchor was frozen in place; back aft, the intensity of the fire kept them from reaching the emergency cut-off valves that would have denied fuel to the engines. Finally, just as we prepared to interpose Valiant between the Mimosa and further disaster, the combined efforts of a commercial tug and Group Galveston small boats succeeded in fouling her screw, and stopping the burning ship. One disaster was averted, but we still had two ships on fire, one loaded with 400,000 barrels of oil. It took six weeks for the fire on Burmah Agate to burn itself out, and the work to clean the beaches of Galveston Island lasted until Christmas.

Burmah Agate taught me that there is a fundamental difference between what readiness means to a Coast Guard unit and what readiness means to the other armed services.

Imagine an athlete so superbly conditioned as to be able to perform any track and field event with world-class proficiency. This athlete could show up and be ready to pole vault, run a marathon, or throw a shot put with no time to tailor training or nutrition to peak for a certain event on a certain day. Imagine an athlete who could be called any time day or night, even interrupted in the middle of another race, and immediately begin a new event—with no time to rest or prepare—and still maintain world-class standards. If you can imagine such an athlete, you can imagine the readiness level expected of the U.S. Coast Guard. That’s what we do. Nobody else in the world comes close.


The story told by NOAA:

On November 1, 1979, the BURMAH AGATE collided with the freighter MIMOSA southeast of Galveston Entrance in the Gulf of Mexico. An estimated 2.6 million gallons of oil was released into the environment; another 7.8 million gallons was consumed by the fire onboard. This spill is currently #55 on the all-time list of largest oil spills.

The story told by me RM3 Scott Carter:

We had just gotten back from a long 30 days patrol. The next morning, I awoke early and standing on the balcony could see a small ball of fire and smoke near the end of the jetties almost 12 miles away. I figured it had to be huge if I could see it from that distance. I grabbed some gear and assumed that we would be called out to deal with this.

I came down the dock just in time to see the ship pulling away. I began to run, hoping to catch the boat. I remember hearing the captain yell “jump carter”. So I did, and didn’t quite make it over the side, but with the aid of a large boatswains (BM3 Sandy) mate grabbing me by the back of the shirt was hoisted aboard. We pulled away from the dock and immediately headed to the end of the jetties.

The scene at the end of the jetties was pretty wild. There was this huge 800′ tanker listing heavily to one side and about a quarter mile wide ball of fire eminating from the side of the broken tanker. It wasn’t going anywhere. Looking around, then we noticed a 600′ freighter doing a slow very large circle (about 2 miles diameter). It was smoking and seemed to be on fire. But, what was worse was there was an oil rig in it’s path. We had to act fast. We commandeered two ocean going tugs entering the jetties and had them come alongside of it and direct it’s movement away from the rigs. We then called on Airstation Houston to provide us with air support. We then began to evacuate the rigs with a helicopter.

The freighter was moving rather slowly, and as we pulled alonside, we noticed that it was dragging it’s starboard anchor. We then pulled up ahead of it and crossed it’s bow. The scene was a little surrealistic. As I looked up at the bridge of this huge vessel I noticed that the whole thing was on fire. Instead of faces pearing out, flames were pouring out instead. At this point I realized that noone was steering the ship or aboard. So here we have this huge ship cruising along all by itself. Our next question was, “How do we stop this thing”??? First, we tried to place some guys onboard to shut things off, but even the deck was very hot. And, nothing on the forecastle seemed to be operational. There is typically enough fuel for one of these ships to go at least half way around the world. How much fuel was onboard? We spoke with some of the tugs and all decided that we had to stop it somehow. We had stopped a fishing vessel once by using a firehose to fill the exhaust stack with water and shut down the diesel. This wasn’t going to work here. We couldn’t shoot it with the cannon. We decided to try something risky. The ship was unloaded. We could see the top of the propellar as it was moving along. One of the tugs had a one foot thick plastic rope on a spool for towing. We strung it across the rear of the ship and pulled it forward. The top of the propellar caught the rope and you could hear the spool start to sing. The propellar began to roll up the rope onto itself. Okay, worst case, it fouled the propellar to the point that the big spool of line turned the propellar into a ball and not push the ship anymore. Best case, it would lock up the propellar against the hull and stop the diesel…. Best case won out here. Now we have a 600′ freighter anchored in a shipped lane.

Now’s time to focus in on stopping the fire. We head back to the burning tanker. We couldn’t get too close, because it was very hot. We were able to get some firefighting tugs close enough to spray water to try to keep the other compartments cool. We then slipped a tug in and began pumping foam into the hold. This appeared to work. The fire was getting smaller, things were cooling down and it looked like it was going out. Another hour of this and it looked like we were going to get this under control. Eventually the fire was out. Woohoo… then everyone backed away and BOOM… We found out later that the cargo inside was a very flammable benzine. The top of the inside of the tank had glowing embers and eventually the foam allowed some vapor to expand. The explosion blew the ship in half. After this it took many weeks of cooling to allow the cargo to finish burning and keep the other compartments safe.

During that day, we put a team onboard the freighter and noticed charred remains along the deck and such. The whole ship had been gutted and smoldered also for at least a week. We picked charred bodies out of the water for a while after that. Pretty scary stuff…

  11-27-03 »

9 Comments »

  1. I was stationed at the Coast Guard Marine Safety Office in Galveston, TX when this incident occurred. I remember this so clearly, as though it was yesterday. MSO personnel worked tirelessly for many weeks. I was in charge of the cleanup operation ashore and conducted numerous helo overflights. These are great photos, thanks for posting.

    Jerry Hagan
    LCDR, USCG, Retired

    Comment by Jerry Hagan — May 13, 2008 @ 6:02 pm

  2. You have some great pictures here at your site. I remember the Burmah Agate/Mimosa collision like is was yesterday. It was a “once in a lifetime” experience.
    I recall 34 Taiwanese crewmembers were on board the Burmah Agate and 32 were killed. The remaining two were found wandering on the deck in shock, then flown to UTMB/Galveston.
    Clean up headquarters was set up at our office, we had six out of town companies set up there along with Lloyds of London, and salvage companies. Capt. Robert Ingraham/MSO used to come by our office for daily reports. I was fortunate to meet him along with many fine people that were involved in this disaster.

    Iris Kulick
    Secretary/Treasurer
    Western Marine

    Comment by Iris Kulick — July 29, 2008 @ 4:15 pm

  3. This is in response to Iris’ post above. Iris, I spent many, many nights at Western Marine after a day of hard work cleaning oil off the beaches. I remember tipping a few glasses around midnight, just before going home. Is Paul still around down there??

    Jerry Hagan
    LCDR, USCG, Retired

    Comment by Jerry Hagan — August 15, 2008 @ 11:20 am

  4. After the fire was out my unit (Point Nowell) was assigned to spend a few days (and nights) anchored near the grounded vessel to monitor traffic as it passed by.
    This is winter and it was quite foggy most of the time.
    We would watch the radar and plot the courses- trying to see who was going to hit us or the Burmah Agate.

    I remember having an ax ready a couple of times as ships approached us. Of course we were trying to make contact by radio, and being ignored or not understood.

    Tony
    Former E-2/E-3/E-2:) USCG
    Everett, WA

    Comment by Tony — November 19, 2008 @ 10:39 pm

  5. Yes, very good pics of a tragic scene.
    30 years ago, I was on one of the ships directed to safer waters by our USCG. We were underway from Pelican Island to an offshore pltfm in the High Island field,. Right through the ship channel and got too close for comfort. Though I was young, I really didn’t percieve the caution displayed as necessary, I do now.
    Thanks USCG

    Comment by Craig G. — January 7, 2010 @ 7:36 pm

  6. I was stationed at the Smalboat Unit that night. I remeber being the first resource onscene after the collison. When you are 18 years old, well I grew up pretty fast that morning. I still remember that day and the following days, weeks and months. I’m retired now and that was my introduction of what happens when people make mistakes.

    C A Borkowski, BM1, USCG Retired

    Comment by Chris Borkowski — May 31, 2010 @ 12:36 am

  7. I worked that spill also. M/V Bear Cat”

    Comment by Bill — April 24, 2013 @ 12:26 pm

  8. I was on the tugboat in back round of the first picture I believe. I worked for Crowley as a deckhand. Was sad to see how ignorance can kill. I am 59 now I still recall that day.

    Comment by Robert — July 11, 2013 @ 4:25 pm

  9. I was stationed at Group Galveston on the small boats when this happened. Many a long hour spent on this case.

    Comment by Johnny Stephenson — December 6, 2013 @ 5:33 pm

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