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Ray Duckler: Cusick, warmed by his wife’s gift, survived, while many others died

Bob Cusick holds the Yankee Magazine which featured the sinking of the Marine Electric off the Virginia coast, of which he was one of three survivors.   Habib photo

Bob Cusick holds the Yankee Magazine which featured the sinking of the Marine Electric off the Virginia coast, of which he was one of three survivors. Habib photo

Robert Cusick wouldn’t admit that the jacket his wife bought him 30 years ago helped save his life.

At least not right away.

Only weeks later, after he’d survived the sinking of the Marine Electric, a disaster off the Virginia coast that claimed the lives of 31 of the 34 crew members, did Cusick nudge his stubborn streak aside.

“He raised hell when I bought that coat,” Bea Cusick said yesterday from her home in Hillsboro. “He thought I had spent too much money for it.”

Robert Cusick died early yesterday morning at the age of 90 after fighting pneumonia and vascular problems.

He had once fought to expose flaws, caused by 40

years of wear and tear, in the cargo ship he both loved and feared. Inspectors had glossed over structural damage despite there being holes and cracks, sometimes giving the thumbs-up without having actually looked at the 605-foot bulk carrier. Cusick’s testimony would later strengthen safety codes for commercial shipping and push the Coast Guard to introduce survival suits for cold-water shipping.

“He wouldn’t lie about it,” Bea said. “He told the truth.”

He retired and settled in Hillsboro, in a house he renovated, with Bea, a registered nurse and his wife of 57 years. A service will be held Thursday morning at 11 at St. Mary’s Church in Hillsboro.

Cusick’s death brought the nightmare of Feb. 12, 1983, rushing back, like the monstrous waves that battered the merchant cargo ship in cold darkness.

“He never gave a lot of details,” Bea said. “It was hard.”

He was 59 when it happened, already a 40-year veteran in the United States Merchant Marine. He had seen the rust and the worn hatches on the ship, which was built during World War II, even drawn sketches to show problems to the company – Marine Transport Lines – that owned it.

He tried to tell officials about the duct tape and glue and coffee cans used to patch the old lady and keep her afloat.

No one listened.

The ship was in such bad shape that crew members sometimes took vacations to avoid the longer trips across the Atlantic.

So was it really shocking that a storm capsized the Marine Electric, 30 miles off the Virginia coast, on a trip to deliver pulverized coal to Boston?

The story is well-documented. It made headlines and created laws. A Philadelphia Inquirer reporter wrote a book about the event.

It happened after 3 a.m., with the water temperature at 37 degrees. Some crew members were caught under the huge smokestack as it crashed down.

“He told me he was underneath the ship when it rolled over,” Bea said. “He heard about ships sucking up people, and he grabbed an oar and swam in the 20- to 30-foot waves. He felt a line around his ankle and followed it and it led him to a lifeboat.”

Divine intervention. That’s what Bea said led her husband, the ship’s chief mate, to that lifeboat.

He floated in the water for an hour, and he floated in the orange lifeboat for longer than that. He saw the lifeless bodies of his friends in the distance, the strobe lights on their life jackets twinkling with false hope.

A Norwegian tanker arrived and tried to save Cusick, but the captain worried the waves would crush Cusick and his lifeboat against the tanker, so the rescue was abandoned.

Soon, a helicopter whirled overhead and dropped a basket, saving Cusick as he joined the other two survivors already in the chopper, shivering and shocked.

Cusick would later reveal that during his ordeal he sang “The Mary Ellen Carter,” a song about triumphing against long odds, written by Canadian folk singer Stan Rogers.

Cusick wrote to Rogers, who invited him and Bea to his show in Boston, where the couple met his mother and daughter.

But the story just kept going, like the ocean that took the lives of so many.

Just four months after the Marine Electric disaster, Rogers and 22 others died from smoke inhalation, caused by a fire on a commercial flight, which had made an emergency landing near Cincinnati.

“Stan Rogers was one of his favorites,” Bea said. “Bob was singing the song in the life boat, when he was ready to give up.”

His last fight ended early yesterday, in a tranquil setting so very different than that February night in 1983.

Bea fought back tears as she told the story of the jacket she had bought for her husband, the one that cost $85, the one Cusick thought was a waste of money at the time.

“He said it served as his survivor’s suit,” Bea said. “He finally admitted that it kept him warm.”

(Ray Duckler can be reached at 369-3304 or rduckler
@cmonitor.com
or on Twitter
@rayduckler
.)

A courageous man full of wit and humor. RIP Bob.

Mr. Duckler, You are such a great feature writer. This story is so well written, with so many terrific turns of phrase. Please keep writing. You add a lot to our mornings.

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