The University of Miami had plenty to be embarrassed about a year ago, when their oceanographic research vessel, the Columbus Iselin, smashed into a fragile reef in the Florida Keys. The accident severely damaged four of the federally protected reef's delicate spur-and-groove formations, fingerlike coral structures that have taken centuries to form. In a bitter irony, at the time of the grounding the vessel was carrying a group of marine researchers from around the world.
UM now faces the very real possibility of having to pay millions of dollars in restitution. The fate of the ship, which reportedly suffered more than $500,000 worth of damage and is docked in Fort Pierce, is uncertain. And with the Columbus Iselin no longer in service, more than a dozen employees of UM's Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science, which operates the 170-foot vessel, have been laid off.
The official cause of the August 10, 1994, grounding, according to a U.S. Coast Guard investigator, was "negligence." The investigator, Chief Warrant Officer Russ Baer, says that at the time of the incident both the ship's captain, Michael Dick, and the helmsman, John Cawley, had left the wheel house. "The master wasn't paying close enough attention to the circumstances surrounding him, as a prudent mariner should at all times," Baer explains.
To some, however, that explanation carries a whiff of incompleteness. Ever since the incident, a malodorous rumor has lingered regarding the reason the two men simultaneously abandoned the ship's controls: One of them, it is said, passed gas.
A recently published report in a national maritime-trade publication fanned the flatulence theory. "Two crew members have indicated that both the captain and [the helmsman] on watch had walked out to separate bridge wings just before the grounding because of offensive odors in the relatively confined wheel house of [the vessel]," reads an item in the June/July issue of the Portland, Maine-based Professional Mariner.
The article does not identify the two crew members. The author, magazine editor Gregory Walsh, says he heard the rumor from a Columbus Iselin crew member who called about an unrelated matter. Maritime accident reports, Walsh adds, are a staple of Professional Mariner's industry coverage.
Several UM employees who were either aboard the ship during its fateful voyage or were associated with the vessel tell New Times they heard the rumor, but all are unable (or unwilling) to confirm it. Coast Guard investigator Baer says he doesn't know why the two men vacated the wheel house and that by the time he got wind of the rumor -- about four months ago, he recalls, Professional Mariner asked him to comment about it -- he'd already closed his investigation, so he didn't pursue the matter. "From the Coast Guard's perspective we simply see it as a negligence issue," says Baer. "From our perspective, the case is closed. No matter if flatulence is an issue or not, the negligence would still be there."
A UM spokeswoman, however, says that she heard the flatulence account during the course of the university's investigation and that both the captain and the helmsman denied it. "That's not what happened, that's not accurate," sniffs attorney Lourdes La Paz, deputy general counsel and secretary of UM. La Paz adds that there's "a plausible reason" for the two men to have been on the bridge, but she declines to supply it.
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The accident occurred at night, while the Columbus Iselin was running scientific tests less than a mile from the reef in Looe Key National Marine Sanctuary, south of Big Pine Key. According to the Coast Guard's Baer, scientists told Capt. Michael Dick that their testing equipment had malfunctioned. But when the captain brought the ship around and headed back toward its original position to recommence the tests, the vessel overran the mark and crashed into the reef. "There were buoys all around there," a September 8, 1994 Miami Herald article quoted Dick as saying. "I was going to execute a turn to bring us up on the survey point, and I stepped outside to check my position, and when I came back in to execute the turn, that's when we got our first bump."
Besides negligence, the Coast Guard charged Dick with violating a regulation that forbids touching sanctuary reefs. Instead of enduring a public disciplinary hearing, Dick voluntarily forfeited his captain's license. (Neither he nor helmsman John Cawley, who was not charged with any violations, could be reached for comment for this article.)
Designated in 1981, the Looe Key National Marine Sanctuary boasts one of the best developed spur-and-groove formations within the Florida Keys reef tract and is one of the nation's most popular diving sites. This past month, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which manages the marine sanctuary, announced that UM had paid a civil penalty of $200,000, the result of a negotiated settlement for violating sanctuary regulations. Attorneys for both sides say they are still working out the amount UM must pay for damages to the reef and the cost of restoring destroyed resources and habitats.
NOAA and UM officials won't speculate about the possible amount of the damage payments. The case of two ships that ran aground in Key Largo National Marine Sanctuary in 1989, however, might provide some indication. The owner of one ship settled for $1.4 million, while the other paid $2.3 million.