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The Mysterious Disappearance of the “SS Swiftstar”

Of the many ships that have been run aground off the coast of Rhode Island the story of the tanker Swiftstar has to be one of the most unusual. She was not unusual because of her design or her being stranded, in which she was ordinary in every way, but rather in a series of curious events that happened to her during her short career.
Swiftstar’s keel was laid by the Northwest Steel Company of Portland, Oregon in 1921. She was the third of seven tankers built for the Swiftsure Oil Transport Company for transporting oil from foreign ports to refineries along the gulf and East coasts of the United States. She was 464 feet long with a beam of 60 feet and had a gross tonnage of 12,000 tons. The vessel had a steel hull with a double bottom and was powered by a single 662hp vertical triple-expansion steam engine that drove a single screw propeller that moved the ship at 101⁄2 knots.

On September 19, 1922 the Swiftstar left San Pedro, California with a cargo of 10,132 tons of crude oil bound for refineries in Fall River, Massachusetts. The weather was good as she headed up the east coast until a dense fog set in on October 10. Captain Kenny thought he was 30 miles south of Block Island when the ship was stranded that evening on the south side of the island. Since there was no immediate danger, the crew remained on board and the captain radioed for a tug that arrived at 6:00 a.m. the following morning. The tug was unsuccessful in pulling the Swiftstar off.
On board, the crew struggled as the bilge pumps filled with sand and two boilers cut out. Seawater started to flood the fire room and the engine room. It became apparent to Captain Kenny that the ship would have to be abandoned before nightfall. He and some crew left in one of the ship’s boats, the submarine N-2 was nearby and stopped to pick up the remaining 33 seamen left on board. The N-2 was a small vessel and the Swiftstar’s crew described the accommodations as “being packed like sardines” into the sub. They were taken to Block Island where they were safely landed two hours later. This was the first of the unusual events to befall her as to my knowledge she is the only tanker to have her crew rescued by a submarine.
Hundreds of curious sightseers gathered on the beach to view the stranded ship. The salvage company of Merritt-Chapman & Scott of New London, Connecticut arrived on the scene and after four days pulled the Swiftstar free. She was towed into New London and temporary repairs were made. She was then towed to Newport News Ship Building and Dry Dock Company and her final repairs were finished in January 1923. She returned to regular service carrying oil from California to Fall River while still making occasional trips to Mexico.
Another event happened on June 8 as the Swiftstar left Providence, Rhode Island on its usual route to San Pedro. According to Providence Chief of Police, James Ahern, Harold A. White was wanted on the charges of brutally murdering a woman in Warwick to steal her gems. He was traced to the Swiftstar and police radioed the ship. White was arrested on board and put in chains awaiting transfer to a special detachment of police.
On June 30, 1923 the Swiftstar left San Pedro with a cargo of 11,400 tons of crude oil bound for Fall River. The ship had a crew of 32 men under the command of Richard Hull. She passed through the Panama Canal on July 13 and was expected in Fall River about July 25 but she never arrived. No distress signals were reported by any ships on her route, she simply vanished.
On July 22 the schooner Albert H. Willis, bound for the island of San Andrés to pick up a cargo of Copra, sighted a large oil slick and wreckage off the coast. Among the wreckage were three rudderless lifeboats, two of wood and one of steel. All had the name Swiftstar stenciled on their sterns. Captain Follett ordered a lookout into the rigging to look for survivors and a large object was sighted floating nearby. The crew of the Willis hoisted the object on board which turned out to be an ice box. To their surprise, upon opening the icebox they discovered a badly burned corpse inside. The man was too badly burned to be identified and was later buried on the island.
What happened to the Swiftstar? One of the theories is that she had been struck by lightning and subsequently exploded. This would account for no distress signal being sent as the lighting would have disabled the electrical system and the radio. A lightning strike and explosion would also account for no smoke from a fire being seen from the island as the explosion could have split her in two and she would have sunk almost immediately. This also accounts for the fact that there were no survivors. One can speculate that the man in the ice box was killed by the lighting and his charred body was thrown into the ice box by the force of the explosion.
In another strange twist of fate one of the crew of the Swiftstar, John Paquette, showed up later in Fall River aboard one of Swiftstar’s sister ships, the Swifteagle. Paquette had been detained in Panama for attempting to smuggle a bottle of liquor into the Canal Zone. He paid a fine of five dollars for drunkenness and was released. The delay, however, caused him to miss the Swiftstar’s departure. Upon reaching Fall River on the Swifteagle he was surprised to hear of the Swiftstar’s disappearance. Because of his escapade, Paquette had escaped the fate of his 28 fellow shipmates.