While undergoing repairs in Seattle, the passenger liner President Madison capsizes on March 24, 1933.

  • By Alan Stein
  • Posted 7/23/2012
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 10146

On March 24, 1933, the passenger liner President Madison, owned by the American Mail Line, capsizes during repair work at the Todd Dry Docks in Seattle. More than 100 crewmembers flee the vessel as it lists against the dock, but one man is drowned inside the ship. The vessel is righted and repaired, but suffers further indignities before ending its career in Japan.

The Tipping Point

A few days before the accident, the President Madison arrived in Seattle and dropped off passengers from Japan, China, and the Philippines. The ship was then brought to the Todd Dry Docks for routine repairs. Three plates were taken off the starboard side of the vessel, just above the waterline, and water ballast was pumped into the port side of the ship. This was done to raise the starboard side slightly so repair work could be done more efficiently.

At 5:15 p.m. on March 24, the President Madison began listing slightly to the starboard side. Somehow the water ballast had shifted over, and the boat slowly tipped on its side. As soon as the 150-foot-long hole where the plates had been removed dipped below the surface, tons of water rushed in, filling holds and compartments. The ship now capsized quickly, rolling over to a 45 degree angle. Alarm bells clanged and the ship's whistle screamed out a warning.

More than 100 crew members were aboard at the time, and the men scrambled quickly to exit the ship. As they scrambled through the tilting corridors to the upper deck, they found their way blocked by numerous pieces of furniture that were piling up in their paths. The men climbed over jumbled masses of chairs, desks, tables, beds, and anything else that wasn't secured and was now spilling out of open rooms.

First-hand Accounts

United States Customs guard I. W. Ald was in the dining room with five other men when everything started to slide across the room. "Tables and chairs slid to the starboard side of the ship. My first thought was that the ship had been struck by an earthquake" ("Two Missing When Liner Capsizes ...").

John Scott, the ship's electrician, was in his room with his 6-year-old son. "There was just a slight list at first. I thought it didn't amount to much and that the men at the pumps would bring her back." When the ship began tilting faster, his son was thrown against the door, bruising his head. "I couldn't carry the boy so I laid down on my back with the little fellow in my arms and slid down the passageways. The list of the ship was so great that I couldn't stand on my feet" ("Two Missing When Liner Capsizes ...").

R. H. Bastella, the ship's water tender, was in his room shaving when the accident occurred. "I had only my bathrobe on and my face was covered with lather as the ship took her plunge. I didn't wait to get my clothes. I ran one way and then another and finally crawled to the upper deck. Then I climbed to the pier" ("Two Missing When Liner Capsizes ...").

Damage Done

As the President Madison listed further, it settled against the dock, cracking and shattering timbers until it could tilt no more. About 60 workers on the dock ran as the ship tore its way into the pier. The ship finally ended up leaning 60 degrees from true, its hull now embedded in the mud below. By this time, the fireboat Duwamish had arrived to assist in rescue efforts, along with a half dozen tugs and a surf boat from the cutter Chelan.

After the chaotic rush to exit the ship had ended, a head count was taken and there were still a few crew members unaccounted for. Three Chinese men were found trapped on C Deck and were hoisted out through a porthole. John Hansen, the C Deck watchman, was found a short time later, pinned under some wreckage in the dining room.

Hansen's Story

Hansen was eating supper when the boat began to capsize, but got trapped when the room's tables and chairs fell on top of him as he tried to escape. The 68-year-old watchman lay there helplessly as the ship continued to list. In the hubbub, no one heard his cries for help as the water slowly rose over him. "It came up farther and farther. First to my knees. Then to my waist. And finally to my shoulders. I broke out into a sweat even though the water was so cold. When it touched my chin, I was sure I would drown slowly" ("Sailor Frees Himself ...").

Hansen tilted his neck back, but the water kept rising until it covered his head. He held his breath, but began swallowing water when his lungs started to give out. It was just then that the pile of furniture he was trapped under shifted slightly, allowing him to pop his head out of the water and gasp for air. By the time the rescue crew found him in the dark room and cleared him of the wreckage, he had been in the water for more than five hours.

Because he was immersed for so long, Hansen was chilled to the bone and could not walk. The rescue crew helped carry him along the corridors until they reached open air and the floodlights of the fireboat Duwamish. Hansen was lowered down to a makeshift gangplank and then whisked to the Todd Emergency Hospital. An ambulance arrived from Seattle's Marine Hospital and, although Hansen was suffering from hypothermia and possibly pneumonia, he had survived.

Jack Rose above It All

By morning, two men were still missing. Carl Ekberg, a junior engineer, was last seen on C Deck, and no trace of him could be found. Jack Rose, an engine room storekeeper, was believed to be trapped in the fire room. Both men were assumed to be dead, as no shouts were heard from the vessel throughout the night. But just before noon, Rose was discovered alive.

When the accident occurred, Rose had just finished his shift and had gone to bed in his room on C Deck. He awoke when the ship began to list. Unable to escape the onrush of water, he climbed as high as possible on the port side, gathering up all the mattresses he could. He did everything he could to stay out of the water, knowing that it would be ice cold.

Once the ship stopped tilting, he found that all of his escape routes were blocked by piles of furniture, both fore and aft. Glancing at a porthole over his head, he realized that even if the ship were to turn completely on its side, he'd still be high and dry. So at around midnight, he climbed atop his mattress pile and went to sleep.

He woke at dawn, but decided there was nothing he could do except wait it out and went right back to sleep. He was still snoozing, warm and dry, when the rescuers found him -- seventeen hours after the ship capsized. The only hardship Rose seemed to have suffered was the loss of his false teeth, but even those turned up weeks later during salvage operations.

Ekberg was not so lucky. His body was also found during salvage.

Someone Made a Mistake

Work began almost immediately to right the President Madison, in what was described at the time as one of the biggest ship salvaging jobs in the history of Seattle's harbor. Divers first had to go underwater to patch the giant hole where all the water had rushed in. Then, the holds had to be pumped free of water until the ship became level again.

But the insides of the ship were a complete disaster. Carpets, curtains, furniture, dishware, paneling, and more were almost entirely ruined and had to be replaced. Cost estimates to strip the vessel down to the hull and then refurbish it went as high as $1,000,000.

At the time of the accident, A. F. Haines, president of the American Mail Line, was asked by the press how the ship could have capsized. Haines made only one statement: "Someone made a mistake" ("Two Missing When Liner Capsizes ..."). On March 28, federal steamboat inspectors opened an investigation into the cause of the accident, but after two months of inquiry, they too could not determine why the water ballast shifted, causing water to spill through into the hole.

Final Days

The President Madison was raised and repaired, but remained out of service for six years. In 1934, the ship was involved in another mishap when she tore from her moorings along the Seattle waterfront during a storm. The runaway ship drifted across the harbor and crashed into the stern-wheeler Harvester, sinking it.

In 1939, the President Madison was sold to Philippine Mail Lines and renamed the President Quezon. The ship sank on its maiden voyage when it ran aground in Japan's Riukiu Islands, and was later scrapped.

Sources: "Liner Madison Capsizes at Pier," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, March 25, 1933, p. 1; "Sailor Frees Himself Only after Water Covers Head," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, March 25, 1933, p. 1; "Two Missing When Liner Capsizes at Dry Dock," The Seattle Times, March 25, 1933, p. 1; "Divers Hunt for Body on Sunken Ship," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, March 26, 1933, p. 2; "Trapped Man, Given Up for Dead, Tells How He Fought to Save Life," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, March 26, 1933, p. 2; "Slumbering Sailor, Roused as Ship Tips, Goes Back to Sleep" The Seattle Times, March 26, 1933, p. 9; "Mystery Veils Capsizing of Pres. Madison," The Seattle Times, March 26, 1933, p. 9; "Divers Delayed in Search for Ship's Engineer," The Seattle Times, March 27, 1933, p. 13; "Federal Probe of Accident to Madison Begun," The Seattle Times, March 28, 1933, p. 9; "Body of Liner's Engineer Found Near His Post," The Seattle Times, April 17, 1933, p. 7; "Inspector's Official Report Absolves Madison Officers," The Seattle Times, May 21, 1933, p. 33; "Liner Madison is Pulled Out of Wreckage," The Seattle Times, October 22, 1934, p. 9; APL website accessed July 17, 2012 (www.apl.com/history/timeline/stat5.htm#pma1).

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