The Tragedy of Nagasaki Spirit
One (dis)advantage of being on WhatsApp is that, you keep on getting added to new groups which keep coming up at a frightening regularity. I would say frightening because, becoming a part of another group means, encroachment of some more of your time by people who this far might have been strangers to you and the time, that is not even enough for the essentials. The trouble is that someone or the other decides on your behalf that you must also be a part of the new group and you can’t say no, because you never learnt to say it. One of the groups that I am a member of, is our Mechanical Engineering batch of 1974 pass-outs and surprisingly, we are only a few in the group though we were a batch of more than fifty boys. Some days ago a friend who lives in America made me a member of another group, a batch of 1974 Civil Engineering Class Pass outs. I hardly knew any of the Civil Engineering guys during the college days, because I was a day scholar and the college schedules are so demanding that it is difficult for one to spare time for his very close buddies, what to speak of making new.
In those days, all non-local boys stayed in the sprawling college hostels as PG culture had not caught up yet. They used to have plenty of time for mixing up with others after the college hours, because the Mess and recreational areas were common and Smartphones had not made the people recluse. Since, this friend had taken admission in Civil Engineering and later shifted to Mechanical Engineering, he was like a crossover bridge between India and Pakistan, the people who enjoy good times, like Aman Ki Asha initiative of Times of India group of India and Jangh Group of Pakistan. Surprisingly, there was a deluge of joiners. It appeared as if they were waiting for some one to take an initiative. Once the group was formed, the cliched process of self-introduction, followed by some disputes over, ruffled egos and presumed re-establishing of pecking order, which during college days was more important than inhalation of breath, needed to be sorted out as over the years, the egos haven’t yet mellowed. All that seems to have settled down as age has humbled many and has matured some, but sadly some haven’t come this far with us on this journeys of mortal frames as their journeys to their destinations were far shorter than ours.
Two days ago there started a discussions about the batch mates who are no more and that has brought me here to relate about the tragedy that occurred on the intervening night of 19-20 September of 1992. “The Tragedy of Nagasaki Spirit”. His name was Sudhir Sabhlok and he was in our Mechanical Engineering branch. He was from a neighbouring town of Ambala and therefore during the college, he stayed in the hostel. Our class of about fifty boys was divided in to four sub-sections according to our Roll Nos. and he was in M4 while I was in M2, so except for the main lecture classes which were common, we had different tutorial and practical sessions. I knew him, but during four years of college, we didn’t have much interaction besides formal hellos.
I joined Merchant Navy as a Trainee Marine Engineer in October 1975 with The Shipping Corporation of India and I don’t know why but he joined five-six years later after we passed out from Engineering College in 1974. I met him once or twice in Mumbai. He was quick in completing his sea time and doing his tickets.
He stayed on ships for longer periods and completed his requisite sea time for meeting the eligibility criteria of eighteen months of sea time, for appearing for 2nd Engineer’s examination in less then two years and appeared for the exam and cleared it. He then left the Indian Company and joined some foreign company. In those days, there was no way of remaining in touch with people except through letters. But that was for remaining in touch with the family, acquaintances and those friends who were not sailing on ships. There was a simpler way of meeting old friends and people one had sailed with or getting information about them by visiting the ships berthed in the Port the ship called. Big Companies have many ships in their fleets and one won’t be surprised to find two or three ships of the company one is working for, berthed at adjacent or near by berths. Because no pass or permit is required for roaming within the docks, it was quite common for the some officers and Engineers of a ship board another vessel and inquire about who all were in the crew. On finding friends or people they may have sailed with on some other ships, they would come and knock at the door and give one a thrilling surprise.
It was one of those surprises that I got from Sudhir Sabhlok, when he came calling onboard the vessel I was on. We were berthed at Le Harve, a French Port. After exchanging pleasantries, I learnt from him that he was a Second Engineer onboard a ship named Nagasaki Spirit. The ship was owned by TEE KAY tankers, a prestigious Canadian company that paid handsomely. He coaxed me to join his company and spoke high of it. I assured him that I will consider, as I came down the gangway with him and other two young officers who had accompanied him. He told me that they were sailing to Gulf for loading Cargo. That was last of him I saw. A smiling, slouching, unassuming, skinny, soft spoken man of a pleasant demeanor, was all that I remember of him. We loaded barley for Rastanura and sailed out a day or so later. I was a Chief Engineer on the ship. Sometime during the voyage, the Captain told me about the tragic accident in which Nagasaki Spirit was lost at sea in Malacca Straits. The technology wasn’t very advanced then and no details of what really happened became known, except through some small telexes that Radio officers exchanged during their watches. Now because of advent of internet and Search Engines like Google and an ever increasing data on the internet, let me try to reconstruct the story by putting the gathered information together.
In those days, the communication between the ships, ships, operators and administrations were only through radio messages and the data was broadcast all over the globe. The radio officers used to keep the watches and take down the telex messages transmitted in morse code. Below is the collection of some of the messages that were exchanged on that day from which some sketchy details of what happened can be drawn.
SHIP NAME: Nagasaki Spirit KEY: NUM. ENTRIES: 9
Collision with Ocean Blessing in Strait of Malacca in 04 27 N 98 42.3 E 19 Sep 1992 Explosion, caught fire, oil spilled Abandoned by crew Fire extinguished 26 Sep Cargo transhipped Towed to Singapore shipyard 12 Dec for repairs. 20-30 dead.
Source Ong, Piracy, Maritime Terrorism and Securing the Malacca Straits
On the calm clear night of 19 Sep 1992, the 100,000 ton crude carrier Nagasaki Spirit collided with the 27,000 ton container vessel Ocean Blessing. The collision occurred just before midnight at the northern entrance to the Malacca Straits. It was a classic T-Bone collision in which the Ocean Blessing is believed to have been making 21 knots based on the engine room log repeater found in the aftermath, and the V-shaped ripping in the side of the Nagasaki Spirit. A massive fire ensued and at least 12,000 tonnes of crude oil spilled out into the Straits. 44 sailors did not survive to tell the tale of what happened before the collision. The final message of the captain of the Nagasaki Spirit however leaves little doubt. ” Have been fired upon and now have fire in Nos 5 and 6 and central tanks. Abandoning vessel immediately and into two 16 man life rafts and will activate EPIRB in lat 04.33N, long 98.43E at 1623 GMT Sep 19. No time to report further as abandoning vessel ” No lifeboats were ever found, onboard the Ocean Blessing investigators found only small piles of ashes — the remnants of human remains, and no remains were found on board the Nagasaki Spirit.
Speculation has it that the Nagasaki Spirit was taken by pirates, and the Ocean Blessing had also been pirated, or was trying to avoid the same, as she was observed by another ship “to move in an erratic manner — changing speeds from 10 to 20 knots, from side to side, as though the deck watch officer was trying to employ evasive maneouevers to avoid being boarded by pirates”.
Source Sivamani, The Limos are here to stay
In Sep 92, when the tanker Nagasaki Spirit carrying Gulf oil was proceeding on a southerly course in the Malacca Strait, she was boarded by pirates. The ship was looted and the crew thrown overboard. Coming up on the opposite course at the time was the container vessel Ocean Blessing. She too met with the same fate but with the exception some of the crew were locked up in a hold. Thus both vessels were NUC ( Not Under Command) and heading toward each other. The inevitable collision occurred. The Ocean Blessing tore into the tanker’s midships. Uncontrollable fire resulted. The Nagasaki Spirit became a charred hulk and sank. The Blessing was badly damaged through explosions. Investigations revealed this ship was carrying dangerous cargo in diplomatic cargo containers consisting of illegal Chinese arms, ammunition and explosives meant for Mid East.
Source House of Lords, Semco Salvage vs Lancer Navigation
At about 23.20 hours on 19 September 1992 Nagasaki Spirit collided with the container ship Ocean Blessing. The collision occurred in the northern part of the Malacca Straits. At the time of the collision Nagasaki Spirit was part laden with 40,154 tons of Khafji crude oil. As a result of the collision, about 12,000 tonnes of the Nagasaki Spirit’s cargo were released into the sea. Both ships were engulfed with fire. Only two members of the crew of the Nagasaki Spirit survived the fire. All the crew of the Ocean Blessing lost their lives.
Source Carpenter, Maritime Piracy in Asia
Nagasaki Spirit collided with a rogue ship, the Ocean Blessing, which was zig-zagging through shipping lanes at the northern end of the Straits of Malacca and possibly under pirate control. The accident [sic] killed all the crew aboard the Ocean Blessing and all but two of the tanker’s crew.
Video taken from USN ship, late in afternoon. So must have been about 18 hours after collision. The two ships are drifting about 2 miles apart. The weather is clear and dead calm. Blessing is completely gutted, but fire on Nagaski Spirit is mostly confined to port side aft.
A commentator with the handle of terrible One claims ” you can see we were the only ship there, we got these as it was getting dark, we pulled no survivors from the ship. We did however pull numerous bodies from the water. All of them had extreme lacerations on their wrist and butts from fisherman that arrived on the scene first. They were going for their wallets and watches. ” Makes no mention of burn injuries, but does not say what killed them.
The remains of the port lifeboat can be seen under the davits. The starboard lifeboat was launched but never found. Only two crew members of the Nagasaki Spirit survived, the 3rd Engineer and the 2nd cook. The Nagasaki Spirit Master’s dead body was picked up from the sea by an American helicopter and landed on another TK vessel the Mihara Spirit. None of the other crew member was found. The Nagasaki Spirit was repaired and renamed Neptune Leo. All the crew members of the M/S Ocean Blessing were found dead onboard the vessel and there were rumours that there were more bodies found onboard than stated in the crew list.
Source CTX ( Center for Tankership Excellence)
There’s a great deal of mystery surrounding this collision at the northern end of the Malacca Strait. Other sources including Discovery Channel claim the Captain of the Nagasaki Spirit was kidnapped and the ship put on autopilot. But CTX has communicated directly with the Captain’s daughter. His body was brought home and identified by a local doctor.
The purported last message from the Nagasaki Spirit is certainly not verbatim. No tanker master would refer to his tanks in this manner.
Another puzzling point is that this casualty resulted in an important salvage claim dispute which went all the way to the House of Lords. But in their judgement, quoted above, there is no mention of piracy. The judgement does say that all the crew of the Blessing lost their lives and only two members of the Nagasaki Spirit survived. If the Blessing’s crew were not locked up, then most of them should have survived as the fire on their ship would have started in the bow. Similarly, Teekay in discussing the casualty in their annual reports makes no mention of piracy,
CTX feels the best source is Koch, a TK master, who was at the Hitachi yard in Singapore in 1993 when Nagasaki Spirit was towed in. He is quoted verbatim in the entry above. His photos show the penetration on the port side forward of the accommodation. Its more than a third away thru the ship. The angle looks nearly 90 degrees. The port life boat is completely burned. But the pictures also indicate show little fire damage on the starboard side of the accommodation. The key is Koch’s statement “The starboard lifeboat was launched but never found”.
TK’s crews are among the best in the tanker industry. Lifeboats launched by good crews in calm conditions in a busy shipping lane do not disappear. CTX’s best guess is that the pirates attacked the Ocean Blessing first. The crew was killed or locked up. Their ship was not under control, clobbered the Nagasaki Spirit, and started the fire. But on the Spirit, thanks to inerting, the fire was confined to the port side aft. The crew of the Nagasaki Spirit abandoned ship in the starboard life boat, and were then killed for their wallets and watches, probably by the same pirates that took the Ocean Blessing.
The crew on the Blessing could not fight the fire which eventually gutted the whole ship and killed anyone who was still alive.
At this point this is hopefully informed conjecture. We need to talk to TK, and maybe the two survivors. The crew of the USN ship (maybe Beufort) and others must have info on how the recovered bodies died.
Japanese source says 13000 ton spilled. UK court case says 12,000T of 40,154 tons of Khafi crude on board. Ship was part-loaded.
Estimates of the fatalities are all over the place, but it is pretty clear that all but 2 people of two crews were killed. One source says 51 total killed which seems about right. The crew of a Teekay Aframax would be about 28 and CTX is guess that the crew of a small container ship would be about 25.
I have tried to go through whatever little is available on the internet about that tragedy. All reports give the same version of the incident, which seems to have been constructed from the circumstantial evidences that lay about as ashes onboard the burnt vessels. It can’t be called conclusive.
By going over many versions of the stories, it is understood that
- Either one or both the vessels namely Nagasaki Spirit and Ocean Blessing had been taken over by the pirates and both the ships were (NCU) not under command ( were on Auto-Pilot) and heading for an imminent collision or
- Ocean Blessing had been taken over by the pirates and the crew had been locked up and it was being recklessly navigated through busy Malacca Straits, when it collided with Nagasaki Spirit at 90 degrees at around midship area on the Port side resulting in a major fire that engulfed both the vessels.
- If at all the fire occurred because of collision it couldn’t have been so quick that the crew had no time to abandon the vessel.
- In the above telex messages, there’s a brief part purportedly sent by the Master of Nagasaki spirit but doesn’t seems to be verbatim, because the Captain will be specific about tanks and locations onboard, rather than being vague.
- If the message be believed then they could manage to get on the life raft, but then why no remains of the raft or the people on board were ever found?
- Some of the plausible conclusion of the CTX report that I have posted above hints that maybe the Pirates that attacked and killed the crew of Ocean Blessing also killed the crew for wallets and watches is hard to believe. I don’t think in an emergency like this the crew while abandoning the ship has time to stuff their pockets with the wallets and wear their wrist watches if at all they had them. Even if some of them had those, they would have given them to their attackers rather than fighting and risking their lives for those.
- The above report also says that Nagasaki Spirit’s master’s body was picked up and put onboard another ship named Mirhara Spirit. I stumbled across the messages of the daughter of the Master, who is still waiting for some information about her father though she corroborates the above story of her father’s body having been delivered home.
In the text above this one accompanying the youtube video is intriguing:-
“Video taken from USN ship, late in afternoon. So must have been about 18 hours after collision. The two ships are drifting about 2 miles apart. The weather is clear and dead calm. Blessing is completely gutted, but fire on Nagaski Spirit is mostly confined to port side aft.
A commentator with the handle of terrible One claims ” you can see we were the only ship there, we got these as it was getting dark, we pulled no survivors from the ship. We did however pull numerous bodies from the water. All of them had extreme lacerations on their wrist and butts from fisherman that arrived on the scene first. They were going for their wallets and watches. ” Makes no mention of burn injuries, but does not say what killed them”.
The video also doesn’t say about what did they do with the bodies they pulled out of water. It is difficult therefore to belief the video either.
I happened to come across a Chief Officer on another ship I sailed on, who lived in the same Apartment Complex in Mumbai, in which Sudhir Sabhlok lived. He told me that his wife was like a statue except that she sheds tears endlessly in silence, trying to reconcile with her loss and his two little kids are unable to comprehend as they ask their mother, when will their father come home?”
There are stories of hundreds of accidents and disappearances of vessels at sea. This is one of the very few, in which there were no traces left of what really happened and about the last moments of the people who lost their lives, for their folks back at home to try to snuff that bleak hope that may still be alive in their hearts.
Death is a reality, we all have to face, but this was very tragic. The discussion on our whatsapp group, brought me to find more about our friend, we lost nearly thirty years ago. I thought of writing this article as my humble tribute to him.
I came across one video on Youtube (posted above) and I went through the comments. Though most of the entries are a decade or more old but, I am hopeful that someone- at least someone will read and be able to give us some more information about our friend.
I have posted the following query there-
“What was your father Lanie Flores? Does anyone have any idea who was the Chief Engineer onboard the fateful ship? And what was the name of the Second Engineer? We in our Whatsapp group in which we the Graduate Engineers have come together recently are looking for some information for our friend ( Indian) whose name was Sudhir Sabhlok. To the best of my knowledge, he was a Second Engineer whereas my colleagues insist that he was the Chief Engineer. There are many unanswered questions attached to that mystery that remain unanswered. All the reports on the accident speak the same thing in slightly different words, so I believe no one knows the truth. If two crew members as reported had survived, did anyone speak to them to know what happened? In one video it is said that someone speaks of having pulled out the bodies and found that there were lacerations on hands and butts, to give a credence to the theory of the pirates having gone for their wallets and the wrist watches. I having been a sailor all my life can tell you that this is bullshit. At the time of Emergency the people won’t go to their cabins to wear their watches and take their wallets. They should all have been found in dirty overalls, except for the navigating officer and perhaps the captain. Who were those people who pulled them out? What did they do with the bodies after pulling them out? Threw them back in the sea because they were dead? There are people who haven’t had the closure. There are wounds that are still open. No inquiry, no report has ever mentioned, what happened to the bodies of those who were on board Nagasaki Spirit and if they had gotten away on the Life Boat or a Life Raft. I even doubt the authenticity of this video on which the fire seems to be raging in and around Engine Room but if you see this pictures at http://www.perfectum.se/variousships.htm posted by Capt. Nils Koch, you will see the damage is near the mid-ship.”
I also came across the message of the daughter Jane Mackereth of the Captain of the ill fated ship. She too like the relatives of all the sailors onboard the ship is still seeking to know what happened but there’s no to answer her queries.
Note:- All pictures, videos and news content about the ship have been sourced from the internet and due credits have been displayed against them. All content is for reconstructing the story, I have no rights over them.
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