Oil In The Gulf
Editor’s note: In 1979, longtime Daily News columnist and Naples historian Doris Reynolds wrote a fictional account titled “The Silent Summer” about an oil spill just off the coast of Naples. While the Daily News normally doesn’t publish fiction, the story is eerily similar in scope to what the Gulf Coast is now facing as a result of the oil rig explosion. Her story first appeared in “Naples Now,” a magazine that Reynolds owned in the late 1970s and early 80s.
June 26. Dawn came slowly to Naples. As the sun rose over the Atlantic and lazily moved to disperse the shadows in the Everglades, the earth and the animals seemed reluctant to give up their slumber.
On this still summer day, patches of fog hung on to the barren branches of the cypress, and the glittering spider webs reflected the pale light. Hunger came with the sunrise, and the dormant birds felt the need to feed as they shook awake and began the pilgrimage from the rookeries to their feeding grounds. The silent Everglades suddenly was alive with the sounds of summer creatures ready for another day.
In Naples, lights began to appear as early risers prepared coffee and then hurried into the silent gray light for the morning paper. As the sky lightened and then glowed, the dogs began to bark and joggers started for the beach.
At McDonald’s and Howard Johnson’s, the construction workers began drifting in for breakfast, and in Crayton Cove and at the marinas, eager fishermen greeted the new day with hope and expectations of good catches.
Out on the Naples Pier, the regulars, already there, were moving mechanically and speaking in hushed tones. At the hospital, the night shift prepared to leave and greeted their replacements with fatigue and gratitude.
Twelve miles out in the Gulf of Mexico, between Bonita Springs and Seagate, the oil tanker Lunar Voyage sat immobilized. The ship was almost 300 miles off course and lay at anchor on a still and serene sea.
Two days before, Captain Marvin Sorenson had been heading northward to New Orleans when the ship developed engine trouble. The Lunar Voyage had been built in Holland in 1941 and was in need of repair. She had been purchased by Magna Shipping just 18 months before, and the new owners hadn’t taken the time to refurbish her before putting her on the run from Venezuela to Mexico. Now she was immobilized, and the captain and crew were helpless to repair the damage in the electrical system. After the electrical system failed and the auxiliary power was activated, the pumping stations began to overload and Sorenson knew it was time to radio for help.
Before dawn, the engineer had awakened the captain to tell him that the auxiliary system had short-circuited and that the pumping equipment was dangerously overheated. At 6:38 a.m., Sorenson completed his inspection of the engine room and wandered out onto the deck to stretch his cramped muscles.
As he flexed his shoulder, he sensed, rather than felt, the low-frequency rumble growing from within the bowels of the vessel. Inexplicably, he reached for a rung of a nearby ladder. The effort was wasted as the deck began to vibrate and he was hurled sprawling on his face. As he slid across the metallic surface, he grabbed wildly for something to hold onto, shouting for help from his bewildered men. His thoughts turned to a far-off time in Korea, but only briefly. Sorenson was shaken back to the present, crying aloud as the realization broke through.
The sound of the explosion was barely audible to Sorenson as his body was lifted into the air and tossed lifelessly into the placid, turquoise waters of the Gulf of Mexico.
In Naples at 6:38 a.m., there were about 12 people on the Naples Pier. There was no sound in the balmy summer dawn, but suddenly the pier seemed to groan, and far out in the Gulf, billows of sooty smoke blackened the sky where the Lunar Voyage was in the grip of her death throes. On the ship, a series of explosions racked the men from their bunks as the mate began a series of desperate mayday messages. First to monitor the distress call was the control tower at Naples Airport. Ham radio operators managed to notify every law enforcement agency in the county in less than 10 minutes.
At 7:05 a.m., the first Coast Guard plane reached the Lunar Voyage. Several other small places were already there, circling the crippled ship. Thirty members of the crew had survived the explosion and were huddled in a lifeboat about 1,000 yards from where the ship was rapidly going down in a bubbling, roiling mass.
It wasn’t until the eight o’clock morning news that people in Naples were told of the catastrophe. Mahlon Moore announced that a ship had caught fire and sunk some 12 miles off the coast. There was no mention that the Lunar Voyage was an oil tanker.
By 9 a.m., the survivors from the Lunar Voyage had been transported to the Naples Community Hospital. Three of the men were critically burned, and almost immediately, arrangements were made to fly them to the Burn Center in Houston. One man had a broken back; another had been blinded by the explosion. As for Capt. Sorenson, no trace of his body remained.
By mid-morning, a raft of boats, mostly Neapolitan curiousity-seekers, had gone out into the Gulf to watch the monstrous-looking ship sink to the bottom.
Experts from the Environmental Protection Agency accompanied a team of search and rescue divers from the Harbour Branch Foundation to the wreck site to try to determine the chances of a spill and the potential severity. They were joined by naturalists from Big Cypress as everyone scanned the bits of bobbing flotsam for any hint of further disaster — oil.
The Lunar Voyage had disappeared to the dark recesses of the Gulf’s bottom, taking her cargo with her. As the sun set in fiery brilliance, the scouting parties returned to Naples reporting that the oil appeared to be intact and that there was no immediate threat that the tanks would rupture.
Three Coast Guard cutters kept watch at the site of the Lunar Voyage’s watery grave. Through the night, salvage crews were organizeed in Miami. They would soon be joined by eight representatives from Magna Shipping headquarters in London.
As day faded and twilight became night, people in Naples slept. In the Everglades the birds and animals settled into the comforting darkness of another still night. Night birds broke the silence only occasionally, the frogs croaked, and the Gulf of Mexico lapped the shore in muted whispers.
Just before dawn broke over the horizon, two more Coast Guard vessels and a barge, dispatched from Tampa, converged on the scene to begin the task of raising the Lunar Voyage and, hopefully, salvaging her cargo of crude oil.
When Neapolitans opened their morning papers, the headlines told of the Lunar Voyage’s demise. Even as the townspeople read of the calamity, the networks were spreading the news on television and radio. When the first Naples Airlines morning flights arrived from Miami and Tampa, there were cameramen and reporters from the major wire services and the television networks. There was a rush to rent every conceivable kind of boat, and by 10 a.m. all available boats in the area had been called into service to take divers, environmentalists and media representatives out into the Gulf. The sky was filled with aircraft of every size and description as aerial photographs were taken, survey teams hovered over the scene, and the Coast Guard tried vainly to control the chaos.
The waters around the Lunar Voyage were beginning to clear as work on the barge began. There was still some floating debris, but the tanks were holding. Six divers were already in the water, fastening lines over the hull; four men were preparing to go over the side when suddenly the sunken ship began to list. The divers could hear a magnified roar, like an avalanche, echoing through the water, as the great ship heaved and settled farther into the depths of the Gulf. The first divers watched, petrified, as a great rupture began to shake the ship. With a terrifying wrench, the oil tanks began tearing apart, allowing waves of the infamous “chocolate mousse” to begin forming a deadly emulsion with the seawater. As the two substances merged, the murky, black cloud spread in horrifying waves, and almost immediately the waters of the Gulf darkened with the slimy stain.
From the boats and planes hovering overhead came a great cry of pain and consternation. There was no containing the tide of ebony poison as one tank after another burst and discharged its deadly cargo. There were more than 200 people at the scene — all helpless. No one could stanch the destructive flood.
By noon, the terrible news was making headlines around the world. Florida had experienced its first major oil spill. In Naples, most residents were stunned. A few rushed frantically to prepare for the emergency ahead. The mayor called an emergency City Council meeting, and in turn, the civil defense office, the Sheriff’s Office, the city police and the School Board were called together in a joint planning session.
Representatives of the Environmental Planning Agency called out the National Guard and went on television and radio to solicit aid from the major cities. Headquarters for emergency teams was set up in City Hall, and within hours volunteers for the clean-up began arriving. Hundreds of students from Edison State College, the University of Miami, Florida State University and the University of Florida poured in by bus, car and private plane.
The Naples Apartment and Motel Association, through the Chamber of Commerce, implored its members and others to provide accommodations for the volunteers.
A court injunction prohibited private boats from leaving ports within 10 miles of the wreck, and many foresighted yacht owners took the precaution of putting their expensive crafts in dry dock.
MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa stood by, awaiting the arrival of chemicals to spray on the spill in an attempt to disperse the oil and clean the waters. Army transports were dispatched to surrounding states to bring tons of straw to the spill in an attempt to contain the oil before it contaminated the shore.
It took eight hours for the first oil to reach the beaches of Naples; twelve, to those in Bonita Springs. But the towns were ready. Barges with cranes aboard dotted the shore. Teams of men, women and children helped to hoist piles of oil-soaked straw onto dump trucks. On the water, vacuum hoses sucked globs of oil into tanks afloat on barges or parked along the shore. On the beached, volunteers of all ages worked from dawn to dusk, with pitchforks and rakes, gathering the oily straw as the tide brought it in.
A local businessman became aware that there weren’t enough rakes and pitchforks. He dispatched his company’s Learjet to Chicago for more than 12 gross of donated pitchforks to be used in the clean-up.
Along Gulf Shore Boulevard, residents watched in horror as the rived tide moved toward the beaches. Many townspeople had to be evacuated as increasing numbers were brought into the hospital emergency room with heart attacks and other serious symptoms. Doctors advised all persons with respiratory problems to leave the area immediately. The long night’s work continued under portable mercury-vapor lamps installed by the National Guard. Food and hot coffee were brought to the beach by housewives and by the restaurants that stayed open all night.
A great camaraderie seemed to seize everyone in Naples. Construction crews were allowed to stop work to help on the beaches; retired millionaires dug and raked along with groups of “street people” from Coconut Grove.
The most despairing work was yet to come. Soon the ghastly victims of the tragedy began washing up on the beaches. Almost before the jet horror could blacken the beaches, the sea began giving up the victims of the catastrophe. Sea urchins washed up on the beaches, and as the ebony muck coated the sand, millions of fish, sand dollars and multitudes of other inhabitants washed ashore on a funeral bier soon to be covered with slimy, oil-coated seaweed. Within days, this funeral bier would also become the last resting place for thousands of birds.
Helping the oil-crippled birds became the emotional commitment of a large segment of the volunteers. This project was headed by the staff of the Big Cypress Nature Center, who knew their work would go on for months. What had befallen the birds was the most dramatically shocking aspect of the entire tragedy. Thousands of water birds in the area get their food from, and rest on top of, the sea. Totally unprepared, the birds dove into what appeared to be clean water and came back up coated with black oil. Unable to fly with oil-heavy wings, hopelessly trying to preen, many drowned. Others, pounded by the surf, would up as shapeless blobs, washing onto beaches, their bodies growing cold, and insides ravaged by swallowed oil. Along the beaches, people hearing the choked cries of distress wept with frustration and anger.
Hundreds of birds were saved. Beaches birds with life still in them were wrapped in rags and taken to cleaning stations, including the Naples High School and Lely gyms and the YMCA, where even small children helped to bathe and feed the birds. The birds were bathed in mineral oil and dried in a mixture of flour and cornmeal. Volunteers tending them worked around the clock.
To fight dehydration, starvation and infections, a syringe was used to force-feed the birds a mixture of water, bits of fish, antibiotics and vitamin B. Members of the Audubon Society and the Collier County Conservancy served as organizers. Some members who had left for the summer came back to Naples to help try to save the pelicans, gulls, cormorants, egrets and other birds that had fallen victim to the oil.
Each day the radio stations would announce the total numbers of birds saved and birds dead. By the end of the summer only three to five birds out of each hundred collected had survived. The most pathetic victims were those birds that, having returned to the rookeries, were poisoned by the oil and unable to fly great distances. Thus, they slowly perished.
The oil spread like hot fudge icing across a cake, slowly and irrevocably introducing itself among the mangroves. The smudgy tide driften down the coast, beyond Keewaydin Island to Marco and toward the Ten Thousand Islands. Day-by-day, the waters of Naples Bay darkened, and the stench of dying fish quickly became intolerable.
No tumultuous tide of storm came to break up the oil. The area was locked into disaster. The canals in Port Royal, Aqualane Shores, and the Moorings were slick with a sable blanket that covered the seawalls, rocks, pilings and docks. Tons of chemicals were sprayed on the surface to clean the water and disperse the oil. This proved to be another disaster as the delicate microplasms in the estuaries for hundreds of miles were destroyed. Even the sluggish waters of the Everglades were affected. The black plague stole into the swamps, the mass migrations of alligators, otter, raccoons and other beasts of the swamp began, as instinct warned them to run from the poisonous tide.
July came, and each day the sun dazzled and danced on the Gulf of Mexico. The clean-up continued through the long summer, but hopelessness replaced desperation, and lethargy seized those who were left to finish the chore. This was the summer during which people in Naples actually prayed for a hurricane to come, so that the mighty tides and winds would somehow cleanse the waters and purify the beaches. But no hurricane came, and as the summer rains began, the mood of hopelessness and despair deepened. The spill affected every person in Naples. The retired closed their homes and left. Many businesses closed; there were no visitors to Naples, save the curious who passed through only long enough to feel the despair. No real estate sold, new construction stopped, and motels and hotels closed and shuttered for the duration.
No boats plied the waters of the Gulf or the Bay. No water-skiers sliced through the glistening surf, no fishermen cast their lines, no swimmers braved the Gulf, and no one walked the beaches.
At dawn, no birds surged out of the islands, eager for a new day. No songs pierced the silent summer.