A First-Hand Account of Tragedy and Heroism on Board the MSC Flaminia

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October 17, 2012

On July 14, 2012, the MSC Flaminia was on a routine voyage from Charleston, USA to Bremerhaven, Germany, when a massive explosion crippled the ship. Of the 22 crew members on board, three were killed – one is thought to have been blown overboard, one died shortly after the blast, and a third died from his wounds almost two months later in a hospital in Portugal.  Two others were injured.

There were also 2 passengers on board at the time. One was Johnny Rosen, a resident of Phoenix, Arizona, who, looking for a little bit of adventure and possibly to rekindle his maritime past, opted to board the ill-fated containership as a passenger for a ride to Europe.

Please note: At the personal request of the families of the deceased and injured, crew members names, photographs and ranks have been removed from this story as of 13 November 2012.

Here is his story:

What day did you leave Charleston?

JR: The Flaminia sailed from Charleston on Saturday, July 7th.

Photo (c) Johnny Rosen, 2012
Photo (c) Johnny Rosen, 2012

What was the trip like prior to the fire and explosion?

JR: Plain sailing!  Uneventful.

Photo (c) Johnny Rosen, 2012
Photo (c) Johnny Rosen, 2012
Photo (c) Johnny Rosen, 2012

At what time point did the fire break out?

JR:  The fire ignited in the wee hours of Saturday, July 14th. As I awoke in the “Supercargo” cabin at 5am, I witnessed smoke billowing upwards from containers stacked on hold # 4, and the nauseating stench of burning plastic. My cabin was near the top of the superstructure, one deck below the bridge, on the port side forward. I had a grandstand seat at the unfolding disaster….and I wasn’t a bit happy about it.

Photo (c) Johnny Rosen, 2012

Following the fire, what was the reaction of the crew?

Thirty minutes later the alarm sounded, Crewmember A’s voice sparked across the PA. He instructed all on board to muster at emergency stations. Crew (and passengers, myself included) stayed cool, calm and collected throughout.

At what point did the blast occur?

JR: The big blast exploded at about 8 am on the morning of Saturday, July 14th, three hours after the fire started.  It sounded like a five-hundred-pound bomb on a battlefield. It was violent, shocking and loud.

GC: Who was fighting the fire when the blast occurred?

JR: Fighting the fire were Crewmembers A, B, C, D, and E.

Photo (c) Johnny Rosen, 2012
Photo (c) Johnny Rosen, 2012
Photo (c) Johnny Rosen, 2012

How long was it before you boarded the lifeboat?

JR: About two hours.

Only the starboard boat was launched. Crewmember G decided not to launch the port side boat when floating containers- that had been blown off the ship- were spotted floating directly below.

Then what happened?

The lifeboat was eventually launched at about 10am, after Crewmember F forced the stuck brake to release and the davits to function. With Crewmember G in command and Crewmember H at the lifeboat’s helm, they steered the boat as close to the burning Flaminia as possible to allow Crewmember K, and Crewmember M to grab a rope ladder and climb back up to the hatch deck to search for Crewmember A and missing Crewmember R.

Once on board, K and M struggled to load the severely injured Crewmember A into a life raft, then battled to lower the raft down to the choppy water.

All this time we sat  helpless in the lifeboat as it was tossed around the sea directly below a dozen broken and damaged containers teetering on the edge of the deck, sixty feet above our heads.

As the orange lifeboat bashed and bounced against the Flaminia’s hull, some of the crew and the other passenger became seasick. Orange hardhats soon became vomit buckets.

It was important to keep the lifeboat close to the Flaminia yet avoid crashing against the hull as K and M rescued the Crewmember A.

Once Crewmembers A, K and M were safely in the raft, a tow-line was used to connect the raft to the lifeboat.

msc flaminia fire johnny rosen
Photo (c) Johnny Rosen

Soon after, the DS Crown, a 300,000-ton supertanker, which dwarfed the Flaminia, miraculously appeared and our lifeboat then maneuvered toward it. The tanker came to within a few hundred yards of the Flaminia and its Russian and Filipino crew immediately sprung into action, lowering a rescue basket to snatch survivors from the Flaminia’s lifeboat bobbing in the water, far below.

Getting the Flaminia’s badly wounded seafarers into the basket was a brutal job.

Credit for his super-human effort goes to Crewmember F, who single-handedly made it happen, with help from Crewmember H and one gutsy Filipino seaman.

JR: From the burning deck of the Flaminia, Crewmember K had lowered a rope ladder.  Crewmember M had climbed up to the deck, and worked with him to save Crewmember A.

Photo (c) Johnny Rosen, 2012

In the flimsy liferaft, now being towed by our lifeboat to the DS Crown, was Crewmember A accompanied by K and M, who loyally stayed behind to nurse him.

Using the tanker’s huge white crane like a surgical cherry-picker, the crew of the DS Crown expertly plucked us from the top of our rocking and rolling lifeboat with their Billy Pugh rescue basket as the boat repeatedly bashed against the DS Crown’s enormous hull. Crewmembers F, G, and a Filipino crewmember manhandled us into the rescue basket, one and two at a time.

K and M had managed to bring Crewmember A down to the water and loaded him into the life raft.

There was no talk nor discussion about the ship which continued to burn among the Flaminia’s survivors, nor among the DS Crown’s crew.

The MSC Stella arrived on scene two hours later to evacuate C, D, and E, who would soon be winched over the side of the DS Crown, and down to the Stella’s rescue boat.

Crewmembers C and E have now spent two months in the burn unit in Portugal, and their prognosis is good, but sadly Crewmember D passed just last week.

Photo (c) Johnny Rosen, 2012
Photo (c) Johnny Rosen, 2012
Photo (c) Johnny Rosen, 2012
Photo (c) Johnny Rosen, 2012
MSC Stella arrives, Photo (c) Johnny Rosen, 2012
Leaving the scene on the DS Crown, Photo (c) Johnny Rosen, 2012
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