1966: Monte Palomares

On 10 January 1966, the Spanish freighter Monte Palomares sank in the North Atlantic, approximately 840 miles east northeast of Bermuda. Only six of the 38 crew were rescued.

Fifty-two years later, one of those survivors, the ship’s electrician Manny González, was listening to his amateur radio at his home in Australia (his callsign is VK3DRQ). He heard the maritimeradio.org special event station ZM50GW calling CQ and decided to respond. After some follow-up messages by email, he agreed to let maritimeradio.org publish his fascinating, first-hand account of the sinking of Monte Palomares.

The approximate location where Monte Palomares went down

By Manolo González

Manolo Gonzalez There is a saying “A promise is a debt” and, as I would not want to be a debtor, I must tell my story as promised. First of all, I would like to make clear that my account of what happened more than fifty years ago is not a product of gossip or anything like that, but is the product of what I lived through and the memories that I carry with me.

I wish to do this because there are several friends and relatives of the victims of that tragedy, as well as my relatives, who often ask me to clarify for them, the things that by one means or another have been said or published and do not make much sense.

There are many things that I’ve read and heard about this incident that do not reflect the truth, perhaps misinterpreting the explanation that some of us, the six survivors, have given, or perhaps, that this pack of wolves in sheep’s clothing, calling themselves journalists, chose to make the drama more “striking” or appealing to the public for their own benefit, without thinking or caring about what the truth was or even who would be harmed by this behaviour.

I’ll mention as an example what one of many articles said: “Once the raft was overturned by those huge waves, these men had to turn the raft back over.” Who could think, with waves 30 to 45 feet (10 to 15 metres) high and with wind of 35-50 knots (data according to JC Carney of the United States Coast Guard and author of an article on that storm who was also a crew member of one of the Coast Guard ships that participated in our rescue, Escanaba) that it would be possible to pick up the raft and turn it over as if it were a sheet of paper? Furthermore, that kind of raft does not need to be turned over, as it is identical on both sides.

On another occasion they wrote that the ship sank with all the lights turned on. If I had not been the ship’s electrician I might have believed that. Along with the boilermaker, we were the last to leave the engine room, and we did it precisely because all the generators had stopped, therefore, there was no electricity, neither was there any other light. We had to find our way up using our torches.

Another of many things, invented by those “characters” of the press that they portrayed as our words was that Monte Palomares sank as a result of cargo shifting. Anyone who has the slightest notion of the type of ship that Palomares was, and had seen with their own eyes how the grain was loaded in the United States, would not have the slightest doubt of the almost impossibility of such a thing. On the other hand, no one should believe that on such a ship, almost 150 metres long, sailing as she was like a submarine covered by those huge waves, would it be possible to know at that moment what was happening in the holds where the cargo was. No one, however brave he was, could possibly move around on deck without being carried away by those waves.

It was also published that we, the survivors, had been under pressure from Naviera Aznar, the company that owned the ship, to keep silent about what had occurred and as a result, the truth of what happened would never be known. I was present in all statements, press conferences both in Madrid as well as in the head office of Naviera Aznar and the insurance company. At no time did I feel any pressure, or fear, or any need to keep silent about what had happened. If there was a great pressure, it was precisely by those “characters” mentioned above, by insisting on convincing us that the truth was what they wanted to write, not what we had said. Nobody, I repeat, NOBODY could know what happened exactly.

The ship

MV Monte Palomares
MV Monte Palomares. Photo: JM Blánquez, baixamar.com

The 5973-ton MV Monte Palomares was launched in 1961 at the shipyard of Euskalduna in Bilbao, Spain for the shipping company Naviera Aznar of the same city. The ship was also registered there and allocated the callsign EDMI. It was 144 metres long and built for general cargo, with five holds having a capacity of more than 20,000 cubic metres of grain. The superstructure was almost at the stern, between the fourth and fifth holds.

Now I will recount events as I remember them.

Into stormy seas

On January 5th 1966, with a crew of 38, Monte Palomares sailed from Norfolk, Virginia with a cargo of 11,000 tonnes of maize, destined for Barcelona.

After January 6th, I remember that some of the crew murmured as they watched the sea “What a Christmas present,” referring to the bad weather that was observed.

The weather continued to worsen and the loaded ship resembled a submarine more than anything. This was not unusual for us in the North Atlantic; crossing was more problematic when we were in ballast, but well-loaded it was quite bearable and the ship was more stable.

Under these conditions we continued sailing until the morning of the 10th, when we were about 840 miles east northeast of Bermuda. Due to a problem in the regulating fuel rod, the main engine stopped. I’m not very sure if that rod seized up or if it broke. I think it seized up, because it did not take long for the engineers to restart the main engine. What I do remember is that the rod regulating the fuel supply to the injectors shut off the fuel to these and caused the main engine to stop.

With the main engine stopped, the ship lost its forward movement and its steering, going broadside to the waves almost instantly and being hit by that raging sea. We felt a great blow on the ship’s side.

The ship had lost power, I think, for only a few minutes, and with power restored continued in the correct manner, but the ship was now slightly listing to starboard. The damage had already been done in so little time!

None of us knew what had happened in the holds, whose access for inspection was probing from the deck, that responsibility being met daily by the carpenter. Now, the ship being bucketed from side to side by those waves, perhaps about 18 metres high going as I said, like a submarine, only the “wise” journalists knew what happened. Because no one else could have known!

A ship of almost 150 metres in length, when the main engine is lost, does not have a way of being steered, and once drifting broadside on, the waves hit it as if it were a rock.

As the ship’s electrician, my main job was in the engine room where I went immediately from the first moment that the main engine stopped, around six o’clock in the morning. Once the fault was fixed and we got under way again and taking into account that the ship was now listing more with every passing minute; the transfer pumping of liquids between ballast tanks, trying to stabilise the ship, was done.

Taking water

Given the inability to achieve this, the draining of water from the holds began. This draining, to our surprise, continued for most of the twelve hours the ship was fighting for its survival. Where was so much water coming from? This made us assume that the first big wave that hit the ship’s side had broken or cracked a side plate, allowing water access to the holds. This was only an opinion acquired by the circumstances, although impossible to verify, but much more logical than a shifting of the load, as the aforementioned “wise” wrote in their newspapers; we know what they are interested in!

I think it requires an explanation about the internal combustion engines. At the bottom of these engines is the crankcase, which contains the important oil for the internal lubrication. If for any reason the level of the oil is very low, there is a device that makes the engine stop to protect it. I must also clarify, that I am not nor have I been a mechanic, mine are just observations of what I learned there.

Because of the inclination and the movement that the waves gave us, the main engine, as well as the auxiliary ones, stopped by the aforementioned protection device, not for lack of oil, but because oil moved towards one or other side and that made the device “think” it was a lack of oil. The main engine would be started again, but the auxiliary engines, which were running the electricity generators, were more complicated. When the revolutions were down so was the voltage, which made the switchboard distribution panel circuit breakers disconnect and with them all starting systems of the draining pumps. And of course we were running out of light.

The boilermaker, Román Murga, was responsible for restarting the auxiliary engines. Once the correct voltage was achieved I would reconnect the main circuit breakers and immediately start the draining pumps and everything else necessary, such as the air compressor which was needed for engine starting.

So we continued at that pace most of the day until about mid-afternoon when the ship’s list was so pronounced that the main engine could not be started again; so we kept repeating the above with the auxiliary engines. For this task, Mr Murga and I were the only people required, so the rest of the engine room staff went upstairs.

It may have been about five o’clock in the afternoon when the stopped engines were not able to start again. Yes, we tried many times, but the inclination was too great and there was not a chance to accomplish it.

Then Mr Murga and I decided, our way out lit only by our torches, to take the difficult journey towards the top deck which was about three levels high, the stairs almost impossible to climb, and trying to help Mr Murga which still made it more difficult; once out of the engine room, we went through our cabins which were almost filled with water, to take our lifejackets and helping Mr Murga to walk which was not easy with the decks almost upright and horizontal walls.

We continued to the next floor from where there was the exit to the rear deck and the water looked like a river coming along the corridor, there we found Juan Rotaeche, the chief engineer who, having perceived that Mr Murga and I had not left, was coming for us. He asked where we had been and we said we were trying to keep the auxiliary engines running. To his question of why we did not leave the engine room when the “abandon ship” signal was given, we replied that we had not heard such a signal – the truth!

After those few words we continued the three of us towards the deck and when we asked about the lifeboats, the chief engineer said that they had both gone. The deck was almost upright; the waves were smashing against the deck as if to take us. Clinging to what we could we started to climb towards the port side which was all that was still above water, I got up there first but Mr Murga, even being helped by the chief engineer, could not climb. I was eager to turn back to try to help them, but the chief engineer shouted out at me, “do not back up”. I continued to the stern, where we believed the life rafts would be.

The ship was still struggling and refusing to go under the water. The cold, rain and wind seemed hellish as I kept slithering myself on the port side towards the stern. At a small distance, to my surprise, I found my friend, neighbour and the ship’s fourth engineer, Jose Gil, known in my town of Bueu as “Pepe de Erundina.”

The part of the ship where we were, Pepe and I, would be half the distance towards the stern, almost at the end of the fifth hold. Suddenly that part went under water for a while, coming back up with us still clinging tightly. I heard in the distance the shouting of Román Murga and the chief engineer, giving me the impression that the water had already taken them.

My friend Pepe told me not to go to the stern, since he was already coming from there and the rafts were no longer in their place, adding with fearful voice “what can we do next my friend?” to which, with no less fear, I replied “the ship is sinking, if we continue here we’ll go down with her, we have to throw ourselves into the water.”

We did that, swimming next to each other for a few minutes trying to get away from the ship, or else she would engulf us. As we swam, we thought we saw a flash and heard a sound like a lot of air pressure coming out of the funnel. After that, a wave separated us and that was the last I heard of my friend Pepe.

Battle for survival

In that awful darkness of night, not knowing which way I was going and ignoring where the rest of the crew would be, I was filled with fear and sadness, but inside me, despite everything, I had great hope even though, when at times instead of breathing air I swallowed water and there were few opportunities in which I was breathing air.

After a while – it seemed like long hours – I found a crowded raft and the occupants helped me aboard. I began to feel safe, but I soon realised that a raft with little weight in the middle, in that kind of sea, would soon be easily beaten by the waves and throw us scattered in all directions. The sad and bitter reality is that every time that happened, those who still had the energy or simply the luck, or whatever you want to call it, were able to return to the raft; the first to arrive helped the next to get on board. But sometimes there were just a few minutes until another treacherous wave appeared.

After a long time in these conditions, we came across the other liferaft, loaded with people and close enough to be able to exchange words. We were so close that they wanted to transfer some of their people to our raft as we had fewer people on board. But, being unable to manoeuvre, soon we were separated again by another wave.

Of all those vicissitudes, the one that stuck with me was that, one of the many times our raft was turned upside down, as I wanted to get out of the water, I bumped my head on the bottom of the raft, so I was beneath it. Not knowing exactly what I was doing I kept pushing up desperate for air, until it occurred to me to swim to the side and came to the surface, I was already without courage or strength, but colleagues helped me to get on board.

These liferafts had two tubular semicircles, made of aluminium I think, to the shape of the letter “D” held by the two points, one at each end that when pulled would bring like a plastic awning behind it which should serve to cover us. We used them once or twice and very soon they were blown to smithereens by the force of the sea and wind.

When the rafts were installed a few months before, I, perhaps by my curiosity, had noticed that they were divided into several sections, some with candies and food, others with clean water and one of them with flares; all properly identified and sealed with plastic tape that had to be pulled to access the contents. I explained to my colleagues that we had to be careful not to open any section until the moment that its contents were needed, because once opened, if the raft overturned, we could lose everything.

I remember in the ship, occasional “abandon ship” drills were done, but always with the boats, not with the rafts, or at least that’s my recollection.

Help arrives

After a few hours in that state of rollovers and knocks of the waves, at about four in the morning, one of us said he saw a light, but with so much uncontrolled movement we could not tell which direction it was. We remained vigilant, however, and again, sometime later there appeared a light from a ship.

SS Steel Maker
SS Steel Maker

We knew before leaving the ship, that SS Steel Maker was coming towards us, but we were told it would come at dawn. Once we were convinced that the light came from a ship, we opened the section of the raft containing the flares and fired some into the air.

Even now, more than fifty years after the events, writing about that moment is for me extremely moving. The light we had seen was coming slowly closer until we could actually see the Steel Maker.

The ship positioned herself to protect us and give us shelter. The crew threw a net on the same side so that when we were closer we could climb on board.

Sometimes we were so close that we could almost touch the hull, but due to high waves, sometimes we separated a lot and when the ship could again get closer we, one by one climbed up to the deck of that saviour ship. I think the first to climb up was the sailor Avelino Campo and the first cook Santiago Uriaguereca.

For my part, I started the climb but would have been halfway up when the little remaining strength I had evaporated, and there I fell, hanging by a leg from the net, thereafter being helped aboard by one of the American crew.

The apprentice engineer, my friend Miguel Echeandía, could not even start the climb. If I remember properly, from the same raft he fell into the water and one of the American crew had to go down to pick him up and get him aboard.

I had my chin bloodied by chafing of the lifejacket and my mouth full of sores from the salt water. That wonderful crew of Steel Maker first thing they did, was to give us dry and clean clothes, something hot to drink with Spanish brandy and as soon as we could answer, they began asking us about the rest of the crew of Monte Palomares.

We told them what we knew and they continued searching for more survivors, but that was like looking for a needle in a haystack. The next day, although visibility was not favourable, one aircraft from the Lajes Air Force Base in the Azores, which participated in the search, claimed to see only a few lifejackets and something green with yellow stripes, asking us if we knew what it was and we told them that they were empty oil drums that we had on the stern deck.

Second raft spotted

In the afternoon a US Coast Guard ship called Escanaba received from a plane the coordinates where they had seen a raft containing three people.

US Coast Guard ship Escanaba
Escanaba. Photo: US Coast Guard

Escanaba headed to that point and when they were near, the plane began to circle and drop flares to signal the the precise location. Once there, they found second engineer Ignacio Bravo Bereincua, waiter Santos Camino García and the body of third engineer José Silva Currás.

According to these two survivors, like Steel Maker, Escanaba gave the rescued sailors everything they could need, and both were very thankful.

Shortly after the rescue, Escanaba, having been 30 days at sea and running low on fuel, departed for Argentia, Newfoundland. She was relieved in the search by the Barataria, also from the US Coast Guard.

Steel Maker and other vessels and planes continued to search for survivors without success, until the Coast Guard terminated the search a few days later. Then we learned with great sorrow that 32 of the crew, our friends, had lost their battle against the sea. There were only six survivors from Monte Palomares.

The port of destination of Steel Maker was New York and we were taken there, being greeted by the Ambassador of Spain.

Monte Palomares survivors
Four survivors of Spanish freighter MS Monte Palomares are greeted by Spain’s consul general in New York, Manuel Albart, on their arrival in New York City. L-R: Avelino Campo from Santander (sailor), Manuel González from Bueu (electrician), Ove Hultin (Master of rescue ship SS Steel Maker), Mr Albart, Miguel Echeandía from Bilbao (apprentice engineer) and Santiago Uriaguereca from Bermeo (chief cook). UPI Telephoto

Once provided with safe conduct we flew to Madrid where we met with the other two survivors, Santos Camino and Ignacio Bravo. From them we learned the reason for their rescue so much later than ours. They had opened the flares’ section too soon and in one of those many rollovers lost them.

After all the rigorous comprehensive statements, we could finally, each of us, head home. Three months later I embarked on Monte Peñalara.

A US $1 note given to the author by Charlie, one of the crew of the rescue ship Steel Maker
A US $1 note given to the author by Charlie, one of the crew of the rescue ship Steel Maker

In appreciation

My heartfelt thanks to the entire crew of SS Steel Maker, especially the one from Puerto Rico who was translating between our Spanish language and English; for all that human kindness they showed us and thanks to them, today I can tell all of this.

Thanks also to Escanaba, although they did not participate in my own rescue, they did so in that of my colleagues.

To Mr JC Carney because, thanks to him, we know more details through his writing entitled One Hell of a Storm.

To all, many thanks.

© Manolo González
Blackburn, Australia
July 2016

The survivors

The six survivors of the Monte Palomares sinking
The six survivors of the Monte Palomares, photographed at the shipping company’s office in Madrid, L-R: Avelino Campos, Ignacio Bravo, Santos Camino, Manuel González, Santiago Uriaguereca and Miguel Echeandía

Those who died

Anastasio Aberasturi (Carpenter)
Ramiro Amarella (EDH)
Julián Arrizubieta (Chief Steward)
Lizardo Barbeito (AB)
Juan Brianes (EDH)
Francisco Cal (Greaser)
José Gil Castro (4th Engineer)
Domingo Crespo (EDH)
Pío Cribeiro (Deck Cadet)
José Silva Currás (3rd Engineer)
José Luis de la Riva (Greaser)
Francisco Díaz (Chief Mate)
Juan Duserm (Waiter)
Iván Fernández (2nd Mate)
Jacobo Fiuza (Greaser)
Antonio García (EDH)
José Goitia (Master)
Antonio González (Greaser)
Francisco González (Waiter)
Marcelino González (Kitchen Hand)
Pedro Gorroño (1st Radio Officer)
Modesto Lamensa (Greaser)
Juan Bautista Luaces (Kitchen Hand)
Francisco Marimón (3rd Mate)
Hilario Martínez (EDH)
Román Murga (Boilermaker)
José Oliveira (AB)
Antonio Rementería (Boatswain)
Jesús Rementería (Apprentice Engineer)
Manuel Ríos (AB)
Manuel Romero (AB)
Juan F Rotaeche (Chief Engineer)

news report on rescued sailors
The Leader-Herald, Gloversville-Johnstown, NY. 17 Jan 1966, p 16