40 years later: Questions about Gulf ship sinking

February 1, 2012 10:08:17 AM PST
During the final years of World War II, the cargo vessel V.A. Fogg -- then named the SS Four Lakes -- made 30 trips, including 24 trans-Atlantic voyages to bring supplies of fuel oil to the troops in the European theater.

Despite close calls with German U-boats and other enemy vessels, the ship returned home safe time and time again and even after the war found a new life as a chemical carrying vessel for the oil refineries in Texas City.

On Feb. 1, 1972, after dropping off a load of benzene in Freeport, the ship was in the Gulf of Mexico for cleaning of its tanks when, for reasons investigators could never confirm, it exploded.

All 39 crew members aboard were killed, and the ship sank in 100 feet of water about 50 miles off the coast between Galveston and Freeport.

Manuel "Dillon" De La Cerda never served aboard the V.A. Fogg but had seen the ship plenty as a pipe fitter for Todd Ship Yards in Galveston.

"It would come into the yard and we would sand blast it, repaint it and put on new props," De Le Cerda said of the ill-fated vessel.

When he heard of the fatal explosions, De La Cerda said he was moved to create some type of memorial to honor its crew. Even though he had never built a model ship before, he said he challenged himself not only to create a small replica of the Fogg, but to build a ship in a bottle.

It's a memorial he keeps to this day.

"When a storm comes, I grab my Bible, a few books and that bottle," De La Cerda said. "I always saw it as a memorial to that crew because no one survived."

In fact, the model of the ship in the bottle lasted longer than the ship itself and is the only land-bound reminder of the vessel that met a mysterious demise.

Owned at the time by Texas City Tankers Inc., the V.A. Fogg sailed from Freeport into the Gulf to clean out the residue from its benzene drop off. The ship still carried a load of xylene when it was at sea, a U.S. Coast Guard report on its explosion indicated.

Steaming at full speed, some undetermined heat source created a spark that ignited the benzene vapors that were in the ship's holds. Subsequent explosions ignited the xylene as the blasts split the ship in two and sent a smoke plume more than 10,000 feet into the sky.

Investigators never determined what ignited the explosive gases aboard the ship.

An investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board blamed a lack of training of the crew how to handle hazardous cargo for the blasts that took out the entire center of the 523-foot ship.

It took the Coast Guard, with the help of a ship hired by family members of the missing crew, 12 days to find the ship. Despite accounts otherwise, most of the bodies, including Capt. John E. Christy, were recovered.

These days, the V.A. Fogg remains on the sea bottom but found new life as a popular diving spot as an artificial reef. It is located in an area promoted by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department as the Liberty Ship Reef where former World War II liberty ships were sunk to create artificial reefs.