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The Worst Maritime Disaster in US History

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With a higher death toll than the Titanic and caused by greed. The Sultana was bringing soldiers home, many of them former POWs. It was around midnight on the Mississippi when . . . .

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The Worst Maritime Disaster in US History

  1. 1. The Rule of Seven: Every catastrophe has 7 events. Six Cascade Events leading to the final event, the Catastrophe. At least one of the Cascade Events involves human error. Thus most catastrophes can be avoided.
  2. 2. “If we arrive safe at Cairo (IL) it would be the greatest trip ever made on the western waters, as there were more people on board than were ever carried on one boat on the Mississippi River!” William J. Gambrel, first clerk & part owner of the steamship Sultana.
  3. 3. On 27 April 1865, three of four boilers on board the Sultana exploded, killing approximately 1,800. This was a greater loss of life than the Titanic. Most of those killed were Union soldiers who were former prisoners of war returning home. This occurred on the Mississippi River, roughly eight miles north of Memphis in the middle of the night.
  4. 4. 21 April 1965: Sultana departs New Orleans 24 April 1865: Sultana arrives at Vicksburg; boiler is ‘repaired’. The boat is overloaded, mostly with former Union POWs 26 April 1865: Sultana docks at Memphis 27 April 1865: Sultana explodes
  5. 5. Faulty and Hasty Repairs on a boiler. The Sultana departed New Orleans with a faulty boiler, but continued for two days until reaching Vicksburg. Instead of replacing it, which would take too long, the Captain over-rode the engineer’s protests and ordered him to patch it. His reason: Lack of funds for a replacement and fear of losing out on the lucrative government contract for transporting soldiers home out of Vicksburg. (interestingly, the Sultana also brought the first word up-river of Lincoln’s assassination)
  6. 6. Lesson: Greed Leads to Speed which Kills. Steamship Boilers
  7. 7. Most of the passengers were in poor physical health and unable to deal with a catastrophe, especially on water. The majority of those who boarded the Sultana were former POWs from Andersonville and Cahaba. They’d survived horrific conditions, and then most had walked all the way to the Mississippi to get transportation home. A number had to be carried on board on stretchers.
  8. 8. LESSON: Physical Condition is a factor not only in survival but in motivation.
  9. 9. The Sultana was grossly overloaded. With a legal capacity of 376, it is estimated there were roughly 2,400 people on board the Sultana. The ship’s owners received $5 for every enlisted man carried and $10 for every officer. And the ship’s captain made an under the table deal to kick back to the Quartermaster who determining how many passengers were loaded at a rate of $1.15 for every soldier carried. Another steamship, Lady Gay, was larger than Sultana but left Vicksburg without a single soldier because its Captain would not participate in the kickback scheme.
  10. 10. LESSON: The lure of ‘easy money’ and the kick back scheme set the stage for disaster. Regulations, concern for safety, and common sense all disappeared. Each soldier was viewed as cash, not a human being. The Quartermaster violated Army regulations.
  11. 11. Traveling up-river, and against the spring flood, put more strain on the engines than normal and made the top-heavy boat more liable to lean when turning. It was spring and the Mississippi was surging, which required more steam to navigate. The river also has many turns. In fact, the location of the wreck was recently discovered; in a field two miles from today’s current river course. It was while navigating a cluster of islands nicknamed “Hen and Chickens” that the damaged boiler exploded. When the boat leaned, water flowed from the upside boilers to the downside. This made the upside boilers very hot without water to be heated into steam.
  12. 12. LESSON: Cascade events pile up. Combine a hastily patched boiler, an overloaded boat, extra power needed to navigate upstream, turns with a top-heavy hull (because it was overloaded and most passengers were on deck) and we have a recipe for disaster.
  13. 13. Technically the country was still at war & there is the possibility the explosion was the result of sabotage. While most people think the Civil War ended at Appomattox on 9 April, it officially ended on 9 May 1865; after the Sultana explosion. Agents were known to use ‘coal torpedoes’. These were artillery shells fashioned to look like pieces of coal and painted black. Loaded onto the steamships during refueling, they exploded when shoveled into the boiler. Years after the war, on his deathbed, a former Confederate agent, confessed to planting a coal torpedo on the Sultana. History withholds judgement on this.
  14. 14. Lesson: Even if this was what happened, the loss of life would have been much less if the preceding Cascade Events weren’t already present.
  15. 15. The explosion occurred at night with no other boats in the immediate vicinity to help with rescue. Almost every possible catastrophe is made worse if it occurs in the dark. The ship departed at midnight. While the Sultana was on a river, with the shore on either side, most of those on board didn’t know how to swim. For many who survived the initial explosion, they faced a terrible choice: be consumed by fire on board the sinking ship; or jump into the water. A similar choice would be forced on people on 9-11. Even some who survived in the water initially, succumbed to hypothermia before rescue could arrive.
  16. 16. LESSON: Catastrophes rarely happen at opportune times.
  17. 17. The boilers explode. Approximately 1,800 crew and passengers die. Given the patch job on the boiler, the over-loading, the river, the timing, etc. it was almost inevitable disaster would occur (as the quote at the beginning of this presentation indicates). The Captain believed they would “dodge the bullet”; which is hoping for a Delusion Event rather than a Catastrophe. A Delusion Event is when a Catastrophe is avoided only by luck; but it makes one more confident this will always be the case. Delusion Events inevitably lead to Catastrophes.
  18. 18. LESSON: Greed is an incubator for catastrophe. Whether it’s cutting costs or trying to make a profit. Regulations are there for a reason. Sadly, the Quartermaster who took the kickbacks had been arrested earlier in the war for taking bribes, but never court-martialed. He was from Illinois, where his brother was Secretary of State and intervened to get Lincoln to personally write a letter, keeping the Quartermaster from being court-martialed. Ultimately, no one was held responsible for the Sultana catastrophe.
  19. 19. 1. Have a Special Ops preparation mindset 2. Focus by utilizing both big picture & detail thinkers 3. Conduct Special Forces Area Studies 4. Use the Special Forces CARVER formula 5. Have a “10th man” 6. Conduct After Action Reviews 7. Write and USE Standing Operating Procedures (SOPs)
  20. 20. Shit Doesn’t Just Happen: The Gift of Failure Free Excerpts
  21. 21. Are you interested in a presentation about various catastrophes and how the cascade events could have been prevented? Events covered range from human-machine interface, to leadership, to communication, cost-cutting, engineering, group think, perseverance, systematic failure, and more? Catastrophes are cascade events culminating in disastrous chaos. War is chaos. Special Forces is the most elite unit trained for a variety of combat situations. What makes Special Forces elite is our mindset and preparation. Are you interested in a presentation on how to use Special Forces tactics, techniques and mental attitude to help your organization anticipate and prevent potential catastrophes? Please email bob@bobmayer.com
  22. 22. Bob Mayer is a NY Times Bestselling author, graduate of West Point, former Green Beret (including commanding an A-Team) and the feeder of two Yellow Labs, most famously Cool Gus. He’s had over 70 books published including the #1 series Area 51, Atlantis and The Green Berets. Born in the Bronx, having traveled the world (usually not tourist spots), he now lives peacefully with his wife, and said labs. Bob has presented for over a thousand organizations both in the United States and internationally, including keynote presentations, all day workshops, and multi-day seminars. He has taught organizations ranging from Maui Writers to San Diego State University, to the University of Georgia, to the Romance Writers of America National Convention, to Boston SWAT, the CIA, the Royal Danish Navy Frogman Corps, Fortune 500 companies, IT Teams in Silicon Valley, National Guard units, Ohio State University Nursing Program, Army Reserves, and many others. He has done interviews/consulted for the Wall Street Journal, NY Times front page, Forbes, Sports Illustrated, PBS, NPR, the Discovery Channel, the SyFy channel and local cable shows. www.bobmayer.com www.CoolGus.com

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