The two river pilots, now in their 70s, still remember the moment half a century ago when a danger signal sounded across the Mississippi River on a clear but dark Easter night.
The SS Union Faith, a 503-foot Taiwanese freighter heading upriver past New Orleans, was headed straight for three barges moving downriver. The barges were loaded with 27,000 barrels of crude oil.
It was too late for Capt. Kenneth H. Scarbrough, the river pilot guiding the Union Faith, to avoid a collision. The vessels hit, and the Union Faith exploded in seconds.
About 150 feet above the flaming ships was the Crescent City Connection, then known as the Greater New Orleans Bridge. The steel on the bridge began to melt. On the river below, Chris Rieder and Douglas Grubbs swung their tug and towboats into action.
In a frantic rescue mission lit by the flames, they navigated through burning oil slicks to pluck survivors from the water while praying the red-hot ship would not explode again. Over the radio, Grubbs heard other pilots asking the words that have haunted him since.
“Where’s Kenny? Where’s Kenny?”
Scarbrough, 38, a fastidious family man who had been baptized a Catholic that Easter morning, was never seen again. Based on radio transmissions from that night, Rieder and Grubbs believe that in his final act, Scarbrough raced across his burning ship's deck to let the anchors loose.
Twenty-five men died. But Scarbrough's final action allowed the tug pilots to save 26 men who jumped ship. It also spared the French Quarter’s wharves, the pilots believe. Should the docks have caught fire, the blaze could have spread into the city.
The crash happened at a time when deadly river accidents were still common. Eventually, the Union Faith disaster spurred new regulations for ship-to-ship radio, and a kind of air traffic control system for the Mississippi, that have prevented future tragedies.
Rieder and Grubbs were recognized for their heroism with Coast Guard Gold Lifesaving Medals. But a half-century after the crash, they think the time has come for Scarbrough to receive recognition of his own.
“He did everything he could to protect those people,” said Grubbs.
A different era
This month marks the 50th anniversary of the Union Faith disaster, an event that transfixed thousands of New Orleanians watching the catastrophe from the river banks.
All these years later, memories have faded about Easter Sunday 1969. So has the sense that the Mississippi is a place of danger.
At the time, however, there was no requirement for ships to use a single radio frequency. Ships' lights were often so dim that pilots compared them to Christmas tree bulbs. Pilots towing uninspected vessels did not have to be licensed. And there was no unified control center to manage traffic.
That combination of factors proved deadly as more and bigger ships crowded the river.
On March 16, 1968, the SS African Star collided with an oil barge at mile 46, above Port Sulphur. Twenty-one passengers and crew were killed.
On Dec. 7, 1968, the U.S. Coast Guard buoy tender White Alder collided with a Taiwanese freighter at mile 195.6 near White Castle. Seventeen were killed.
Scarbrough would have been well aware of the dangers as he took the helm for the last time on the night of April 6, 1969.
The Quanah, Texas, native had become a respected Mississippi River pilot despite a lack of family connections in that often-clannish world.
After years in the U.S. Merchant Marine and aboard a ship based in Alabama, Scarbrough took his bride Dorothy to New Orleans, where he become a pilot. His son, Kenneth D. Scarbrough, remembers tagging along on trips.
Out on the water, Scarbrough always wore a neat suit and tie. Other pilots said he never swore. At home on Fleur de Lis Drive in Lakewood North, he was a gardener and father to a 9-year-old son and 5-year-old daughter.
“That’s what Dad always wanted: a family. He truly loved his wife, his children, his home,” said Kimberly Scarbrough Lawrence, the daughter.
Scarbrough was also a man of faith, a fact that would come to play prominently in memorials.
Raised in the Primitive Baptist tradition, in the last months of his life he studied to join his wife's Roman Catholic Church. At the Easter midnight Mass before Scarbrough’s death, Msgr. Henry Bezou baptized him at St. Francis Xavier Church.
That morning, Kimberly woke up to find an Easter basket and a stuffed animal. Her brother went out on the river with his father, and the pair returned for Easter supper.
Then Scarbrough received the call to pilot the Union Faith, an ocean freighter of the China Union Lines with a cargo of cotton, plywood and plastic flowers. The ship was bound for a berth on the east bank of New Orleans three miles upriver of the Greater New Orleans Bridge.
The son wanted to head out to the river again. His mother forbade it. There was school on Monday.
As the older Scarbrough drove away in his white Buick, he waved goodbye to his son.
Darkness and light
Night had fallen by the time Scarbrough directed the Union Faith toward the bridge, shortly before 7 p.m. He, the ship’s master and 49 Taiwanese crewmen were aboard.
Officials at the Coast Guard and National Transportation Safety Board reconstructed what happened next.
After leaving the side of the river near Algiers Point, the Union Faith was crossing to the ascending right side of the river at about five knots. The tow of volatile oil barges, pushed by the MV Warren J. Doucet, was headed downriver near the east bank landing of the bridge.
With about 1⅛ miles between them, the Doucet let loose a series of whistle blasts meant to signal for the ships to pass each other starboard-to-starboard.
Scarbrough evidently did not hear them. The wind was blowing against the tow.
With a half-mile left between them, the Doucet noted that the Union Faith was still tending toward the barges. The Doucet blasted its signals again. It got no response.
Investigators believed Scarbrough did not see the assembly of barges being pushed by the MV Warren Doucet. There were 580 feet between the Doucet and the lead barge, which had three puny, 45-watt bulbs on its forward end. The barges themselves were completely dark and sat about one foot above the water.
Both pilots had radio — but they weren’t on the same frequency.
With only a few hundred feet left, the Doucet swung its spotlight onto the barges as a warning.
Scarbrough sounded his danger signal and ordered the Union Faith full astern, but it was too late. The ship sliced into the lead barge at a 45-degree angle. As the ship sheared the side of the barge, sparks set the oil inside on fire. An explosion tore a hole through the bow of the Union Faith and shot burning oil onto the vessel.
Rieder, then 25, was reading a book in the wheelhouse of a towboat called the McGrath II at the Perry Street wharf on the west bank. Grubbs, 24 at the time, was on a tug called the Cappy Bisso near Toulouse Street on the east bank.
Both swung into action, steering their boats toward a massive fireball on the river. The flames were hot, loud and all-consuming. One woman driving over the bridge at the time said she now knew what hell was like.
“You really couldn’t tell where the ship was at because the water was on fire,” Grubbs recalled in an interview this month.
The pilots also saw that the burning ship was drifting downriver toward the wooden wharves that still lined the French Quarter waterfront.
“If the sheds would have caught fire, it would have been another Chicago,” Rieder said, referring to that city's Great Fire of 1871.
“Nobody really knew: Is that ship going to sink right there? Or is it going to float to one of the docks?” Grubbs said.
Instead, Grubbs managed to get his tug close enough to connect his hawser to the Union Faith’s anchor, which had been dropped. His tug pulled on the ship, holding it in place, until it sank at 1:47 a.m.
Grubbs said the dropped anchor also eased his efforts with Rieder to pull surviving Taiwanese crew members out of the water. They managed to save 26 lives in all. Other river pilots raced to move ships away from French Quarter wharves to safety.
Dumbfounded citizens watched the rescue effort from the river's banks. A 12-year-old boy named Jimmy Duckworth, who eventually became a Coast Guard commander in New Orleans, recalls acrid smoke and the city’s skyline painted in orange.
“Everybody got quiet, because everybody knew something really bad had happened,” Duckworth said.
Scarbrough’s wife was also among the thousands watching from the shore, her children say.
Grubbs said it was only in the days afterward that he pieced together what must have happened. On the night of the crash, he heard other pilots asking where Scarbrough was. One of them relayed that "Kenny" had been seen sprinting to the front of the Union Faith.
Scarbrough had been running to drop the anchors, Grubbs decided.
Remembering the dead
On April 6 of this year, Scarbrough’s son observed a solitary ritual. He ate a burger at Port of Call and then walked through the French Quarter to Spanish Plaza and the plaque there that honors his father.
“Most of the folks that come down there, they don’t stop and read it,” he said. “It doesn't have any fluorescent lights, the things that grab our short attention spans, and that’s OK.”
Scarbrough’s children say his death cast a long shadow over their childhoods. Kimberly struggled to reconcile her faith in God with her father’s untimely demise. Kenneth said his faith never wavered — but that what could have been a career on the river vanished.
“The pilots were not really ever a possibility for me,” he said. “And then, of course, having my dad be gone when I was not even 10 years old changed everything as well. We can only speculate what would have been.”
Immediately after his death, Capt. Scarbrough was turned into a legend by the church, focused on his baptism hours before his death. His son remembers a long feature in the archdiocese's newspaper and a house call the next month from then-Archbishop Philip Hannan.
Scarbrough’s children found comfort in the praise. But in the first years after his death, he was almost a taboo subject in their household.
“Unfortunately, for a while my Dad became kind of caught up in this sort of aura of his baptism and the heroism and the actions that he performed in ensuring that the anchors were lowered,” Scarbrough said. “The heroism eclipsed his humanity, in a sense. So for a long time my mother wouldn't talk about him.”
As the years wore on, those discussions became easier. Scarbrough’s widow died in 1990. Her monument faces the river.
Instead of raising the Union Faith, the Army Corps of Engineers buried it in a trench at the bottom of the river. In 1999, the ship began releasing a trickle of oil into the river. The resulting effort to stop the leak — which involved a complicated dive operation — generated new interest in the Union Faith story.
Then-Captain of the Port Stephen Rochon spearheaded an effort to have Rieder and Grubbs awarded the rare Gold Lifesaving Medals in 2001.
Duckworth, the boy who watched the Union Faith disaster long before he became a Coast Guard commander, thinks some sort of formal recognition of Scarbrough’s heroism is also in order.
Over beers at the Rivershack Tavern, he described teaming up with the two pilots to create a fuller account of what happened that Easter night. They hope to find some of the surviving Taiwanese crewmen to get a firsthand account of Scarbrough's last moments.
Duckworth spent years in the Coast Guard as an accident investigator. He sees Scarbrough’s heroism as indisputable.
So were the effects of the crash, he said. It helped generate new regulations around marine radio frequencies and a state-of-the-art communications center for river traffic on the Mississippi.
More tragedies would come, including the October 1976 Luling ferry disaster that claimed 78 lives. But these days, river infernos like the Union Faith seem to be a thing of the past.
“A lot came from this — but oh my God, did we pay for it,” Duckworth said.
Editor's note: This story was changed April 21 to correct the wattage of the light bulbs on the MV Warren Doucet.