Adam Martin kissed her husband goodbye and watched him walk up the
gangway of the S.S. Marine Sulphur Queen.
She could have left Beaumont
then for their home in Austin,
but Mrs. Martin stayed on the wharf as the molten sulphur-laden
tanker moved down the Neches
River for the Gulf of Mexico.
One of the ship’s assistant engineers, her husband would be gone
less than two weeks. Leaving Beaumont
Feb. 2, 1963, the Sulphur Queen would reach Norfolk, Va. in five
days, off-load its cargo of hot yellow liquid and return to Beaumont.
So far as is known, the Texas woman was the last person to see the
504-foot, 7,240-ton tanker and her 39-man crew.
for Esso Oil in 1944, her original name had been the New Haven.
After World War
II, she continued to carry oil, but that would change as the
chemical industry began to produce new products and seek additional
The Texas Gulf Sulphur Co. built a large plant near Beaumont
to extract sulphur from the Spindletop
salt dome, site of the state’s first gusher in 1901. The company
injected high-pressure steam into the dome to melt the sulphur below,
and then pumped the molten element into heated tanks.
In 1960, the New York-based Marine Transport Co. purchased the tanker
and had her refitted to carry liquid sulphur heated to 255 degrees,
the first vessel of her kind. Renamed the Sulphur Queen,
she got more than a new coat of paint. Her bowels underwent extensive
surgery to make room for a 306-foot welded steel tank capable of
holding 15,211 long tons of molten sulphur.
The Sulphur Queen had made 63 trips from Texas
to various ports on the Eastern seaboard carrying a substance that
could be converted to everything from matches to fertilizer to sulfuric
6:30 p.m. that February 2, the ship cleared the Sabine sea buoy.
After dropping off the pilot who had been on board, the tanker moved
into the open Gulf. As she steamed southeast, a cold front that
had roared through Beaumont
as Mrs. Martin left the dock picked up speed over the shallow water.
Now the north wind gusted well above gale force.
From the bridge, Capt. James V. Fanning of Beaumont,
an experienced master, watched the spray as his ship’s 7,200-horsepower,
turbo-electric power plant pushed her through the increasingly high
waves. He knew his ship was equal to the job, but the falling barometer
told him it would be a rough trip, at least until the front dissipated.
Five days later, Mrs. Martin’s brother called.
“Mart’s ship is missing,” he said.
At first, she waited confidently for a reassuring telephone call
that never came. Surely, the ship’s communication system had failed
or her captain had changed course to avoid the heavy weather.
Six days after the ship left Beaumont,
the families of those on board received this telegram:
“Marine Sulphur Queen Scheduled Arrive Norfolk Afternoon 7th Unreported
And Overdue Stop Coast Guard And Ships Endeavoring Communicate With
And Locate Vessel Stop We Also Doing Everything Possible And We
Will Keep You Closely Advised Marine Transport Lines Inc.”
The ship had
not been heard from since 1:25 a.m. February 4 when she reported
her position roughly 200 miles off Key West.
At 8 a.m. February 8, the Coast Guard, with assistance from the
Navy, Marine Corps and Air Force, launched an aerial search of the
ship’s route from Beaumont
Mrs. Fanning, the captain’s wife, remembered the page-one story
in the Beaumont Enterprise three days after her husband left port.
The brutal winter storm that had swept across the Gulf had played
havoc with shipping along Florida’s east coast. Winds gusting to
46 knots churned up 20-foot waves.
The search, 30 miles each side of the ship’s estimated course, continued
through February 13. The government’s effort included 83 sorties
and covered 348,400 square miles with no results.
On Valentine’s Day, Sulphur Queen families received another telegram.
The Coast Guard had called off its search and “present indications
indicate probable loss” of the vessel.
Five days later, that loss seemed more certain. A small U.S. Navy
vessel sighted debris bobbing in the water about 12 miles southwest
of Key West. Moving in for a closer look, the vessel’s skipper saw
a collection of life jackets and orange life rings.
The first ring fished from the water bore the stenciled letters
“Marine Sulphur Queen.” Before the Naval vessel made for Miami,
it retrieved eight life jackets, five life rings, two name boards,
a shirt, a piece of oar, an oil can, a gasoline can, a cone buoy,
and a fog horn.
The Coast Guard shipped the material to Washington, where government
experts came to two conclusions: Slash marks in two of the life
jackets indicated an “attack by predatory fish” such as sharks,
and the material bore no signs of explosion or fire.
on the flotsam’s discovery, the Coast Guard mounted a second search
from just west of the Dry Tortugas to the Bahamas and up the Florida
coast as far as Cape Canaveral. Seven ships and 48 aircraft covered
some 60,000 square miles, finding nothing. Navy dive teams searched
unsuccessfully for the ship’s hulk.
On March 14, the government again called off its search for the
missing Texas-based tanker.
The Coast Guard convened a board of inquiry in Beaumont
on February 20. After taking testimony from Texas Gulf personnel
and the ship’s owners, the proceedings continued in New York for
A year later, Argosy magazine added a new landmark to the geography
of world imagination, the “Bermuda Triangle.” Writer Vincent Gaddis
described a mysterious triangle whose apexes were Bermuda, Miami,
and San Juan, Puerto Rico. Inside it, he wrote, an unusually high
number of boats, ships, and airplanes had disappeared over the years.
The most recent being the Sulphur Queen.
“The Coast Guard is not impressed with supernatural explanations
of disasters at sea,” it says on its web site. “It has been [its]
experience that the combined forces of nature and unpredictability
of mankind outdo even the most far-fetched science fiction…”
In January 2001, scuba divers investigated a large hulk resting
upside-down in 423 feet of water about 140 miles out in the Gulf
from Ft. Myers, Fla. Though divers found no conclusive evidence,
they could not rule out it being the Sulphur Queen.
“In view of the absence of any survivors and the physical remains
of the vessel,” the Coast Guard concluded, “the exact cause for
the disappearance of the…Sulphur Queen could not be ascertained.”
© Mike Cox
- June 26, 2014 column
More "Texas Tales"
Related Topics: People
| Columns | Texas
Town List | Texas
Order Books by Mike Cox