The disappearance of the 504-foot T-2 tanker Marine Sulphur Queen near the Florida Keys in February 1963 is one of the most famous mysteries of the Bermuda Triangle. It was only a year after her disappearance that Vincent Gaddis, inspired by her much publicized loss, coined the term “Bermuda Triangle.” As the largest ship to vanish in recent times (pre-1964), she became a central figure in the soon-to-be popular Bermuda Triangle phenomenon. Although the image created for her of placid seas is erroneous, her disappearance is far from easily explainable.
The T-2 tanker was the work horse of the post World War II world. After the war the surplus was sold off into commercial companies, and the familiar silhouette could be seen in most any port. The MSQ was built in 1944, and after the war was sold off as an oiler. In 1960 she was converted to carry molten sulphur, which required redoing her bowls in order to place a long 306 foot all welded steel tank down her center in which to store and maintain the sulphur in molten condition. A hazardous cargo, to be sure. . . but one that had proven safe enough to transport.
During this conversion MSQ was extensively overhauled. Bottom plates in her hull were replaced, others repaired. All deck longitudinals in the way of the sulphur tank were renewed as well as all deck longitudinals; and web frames where it was deemed necessary. The sulphur tank itself was divided into 4 sulphur-tight compartments, making a leak controllable. All this was done in adherence to American Bureau of Shipping and Coast Guard standards.
MSQ plied her trade of sulphur for 2 years without incident. In January 1963 her biennial check was required. Two weeks before her final voyage, she was re-certified. This inspection had entailed her general alarm system, steering gear, engine telegraph, fire hose, navigation lights, portable fire extinguishers, life preservers, all machinery, all accessible spaces, and the boilers. All were passed. Eleven new life rings were added and life boats were all repaired. Moreover, the FCC now inspected and certified in good working order her radios, including those in her lifeboats. Even more, the Bureau of Shipping now made its annual inspection of the hull, machinery, the boilers again, and certified all in good condition.
The disappearance of the MSQ is just another example of a ship fully inspected and certified, sailing out and then vanishing for no reason.
MSQ was last in ship-to-shore radio on February 4, 1963. A member of the crew, speculating in wheat futures, sent a message to his broker at 1:25 a.m. that early morning. At 11:23 .a.m. that day RCA tried to relay the broker’s reply. However, there was no response from the vessel. It is between these two time slots when whatever happened must have happened.
On February 7 the Coast Guard was informed MSQ had not arrived at port. A hot line message was sent to try and raise the ship. When this failed a vast search entailing 348,400 square miles and 499.6 man hours failed to find a clue.
By an anticlimactic coincidence, on February 20, a Navy Torpedo Retriever sighted something in the water during routine exercises. It was only 12 miles southwest of Key West. It was a fog horn. Close by a life preserver was found, then a sign board and life ring reading “Marine Sulphur Queen.” The search was reactivated, but no real clue could ever be found, only a few more pieces of debris were picked up, all grouped in the same area.
The combined examination by the FBI, Bureau of Fisheries, Coast Guard and Bureau of Standards, of the debris is worthy of note. “The consensus of opinion was that possibly two life jackets had been worn by persons and that the shirt tied to a life jacket had also been worn by a person. Numerous tears on the life jackets indicated attack by predatory fish.”
Although it seemed there were survivors, there was no evidence on the debris of explosion, sulphur, fire, or anything that could shed light on what had destroyed the ship so quickly. The sign board gave us the only clue: it must have been incredibly destructive to rip it apart.
On its own the gale winds that arose cannot account for the loss of the MSQ without other intervening factors, such as splitting in half. T-2 tankers had been known to split in half. By MSQ’s time, perhaps 10 had done so. However, the type of vessel never lost its certificate to ply trade at sea, for a number of reasons. T-2s were the backbone of the oil trade, and even those that split in twain had always shown the dexterity of remaining afloat long enough for the crew to abandon ship. Indeed, on most occasions at least one half of the vessel always stayed afloat, many times both. Sturdy wartime construction had placed within the vessels many transverse watertight bulkheads which simply acted as another hull when they split. Had the MSQ split in twain it was thought there would have had time for an SOS, for the crew to abandon ship (if necessary), and the area of disaster would have been marked by stinky yellow pools of sulphur. The debris was even tested to see if it showed any residue from sulphur. Yet there have been none.
But the MSQ was not like other T-2s. Her bowels had been severely altered in her refit to carry sulphur. Did the altering her insides reduce the watertight effectiveness of her transverse bulkheads? Now they were all pierced by that 306 foot steel tank for carrying the sulphur. While this was thought possible, it was also thought that the addition of this tank and its reinforcements would have prevented any chance of the vessel splitting in two like the basic oilers had done.
An explosion was also considered. It was posited that if MSQ was in pitching seas the jostled sulphur might have let off vapors that built up in the tank and finally exploded. In a corollary case, this had happened. But the result was merely a distortion of the tank. In this case, the tank had also been half full, allowing room for the gases to develop . . .but in the case of the MSQ her tanks were completely full, allowing no room for the volatile gases to accumulate. The official Marine Board of Investigation noted:
“Although an explosion of the gases in one of the cargo tanks cannot be discounted, it would appear that such an explosion, if it occurred, would not be of a sufficient destructive force to account for the complete loss of the vessel without the intervention of other causes, perhaps, resulting from the initial explosion. It seems to be a generally accepted fact that an explosion of these gases is, relatively speaking, and dependent on the factors of quantity of space, not of a high order.”