Alaska Life

The Knik Arm tanker collision of 1964: Negligence, heroism and a stowaway beetle

David Reamer history column oil tankers collision Knik Arm 1964 Santa Maria Sirrah

Part of a continuing weekly series on local history by local historian David Reamer. Have a question about Anchorage history or an idea for a future article? Go to the form at the bottom of this story.

Around 4 p.m. on Oct. 19, 1964, two tankers near Point Woronzof crashed into each other. Few Anchorage residents on land noticed the collision, but no one could miss the rapidly rising pillar of smoke that towered over the town. Hundreds of people soon gathered along the shore, though the black smoke obscured the ships. What followed was a dramatic narrative involving negligence, heroic rescues and a stowaway beetle.

That day, the Dutch tanker MV Sirrah, chartered by Shell Oil, was anchored in Knik Arm awaiting its turn at the port. The SS Santa Maria, a Union Oil tanker, was on its way into Anchorage from Kodiak. It was still daylight, and visibility ran for 10 miles. As the Santa Maria approached, warning whistles and horns sounded. It did not matter. The two ships, each filled to the brim with various petroleum products, collided. A section of the Santa Maria hull buckled and began to leak. The grinding metal sparked, and a fireball flashed over the tankers.

At the time of impact, a tug, the West Wind, was tied to the Sirrah. Another tug, the Arctic Wind, circled them both, waiting to move in and help guide the tanker into port. Both were operated by members of a multi-generational family of Cook Inlet boatmen, the Andersons. Jack Anderson Jr. and his wife, Lois, were aboard the West Wind, and their son, Andy, was in the Arctic Wind.

The next day, Jack described the crash to the Daily News: “We were just getting ready to bring the Sirrah in. She was lying at anchor with about 45-feet of chain out and wasn’t moving in the water at all. It looked as if the tide set the Santa Maria right down on us. I’d say the Santa Maria was moving along at about three or four knots.”

Amid the blare of the general alarm, the fire raced across the Santa Maria. Jack Price, a steward, recounted the scene to the Daily News: “We were just getting ready to serve dinner when all of a sudden this ship’s bow struck us starboard. Almost instantly flames broke out—they were everywhere. We ran forward to try and fight the fire. The fire hoses were broken out, we had them going but it was no use. The flames came too fast.”

Edmond Oliver, another Santa Maria crewman, was deeper inside the ship. “Smoke was coming in thick through the ventilators,” he said. “I was working with Eugene Hughes in the fire room and said ‘Let’s get out of here.’ It was so smoky I don’t know if he followed me or not.”

The Sirrah crew quickly extinguished the fire that splashed over, but the ropes connecting the tanker to the West Wind burnt away. After verifying that the Sirrah was in no imminent danger, Jack piloted his tug toward the Santa Maria, which was in dire need of assistance. “The afterhalf of the Santa Maria was all in flames,” said Jack. “The fire was all up alongside of the port side of the ship and about halfway up the starboard side.” Lois later explained their thinking at the time, “I thought, if I could help some of those fellows get off, then that’s where I want to be.”

With the hoses failing to make a dent against the fires on the Santa Maria, Captain Austin Tompter ordered his men to abandon ship. There were 39 men aboard the tanker. Seven of them managed to lower a lifeboat and escape, but there was not enough time for the rest to follow suit. Their remaining options were the fire or a risky swim in Cook Inlet. Then they saw the West Wind.

Said Price, “We ran to this boat alongside. It was a harbor boat of some kind skippered by a man, I think, called Anderson. We owe a lot to that guy. It took guts, and that’s the only way to put it, for him to hold that boat alongside. The fender on his bow was burning and we could have gone at any moment. Believe me, personally, I’d say we owe him our lives.”

When Oliver arrived on deck, he saw the remaining crew jumping down to the tug. “Everyone was amidship. I could see the side of the ship was on fire. I ran up and jumped.” It was a 12-foot drop. He landed hard and broke both heels. Another man fractured his ankle, not that he minded the exchange for his continued life.

The Andersons saved 31 men off the Santa Maria. Hughes, the man Oliver had left behind in the smoke, was never found. In Hughes’ quarters, investigators discovered his wallet missing and an opened porthole. They concluded that Hughes had drowned in the cold water, his body claimed by the Cook Inlet tides.

David Reamer history column oil tankers collision Knik Arm 1964 Santa Maria Sirrah

A less deadly narrative unfolded on the Sirrah. U.S. Department of Agriculture inspector Joseph Byrnes was conducting a routine examination of the Sirrah to prevent animal and plant diseases from reaching Alaska. He was new to Anchorage after a recent reassignment from the Lower 48.

Shortly before the crash, Byrnes discovered an insect on board. It was a Khapra beetle, a hardy and invasive pest known for destroying grain supplies. He carefully herded the bug into a bottle, capped it, and placed it in his shirt pocket. It was right about then when he and an accompanying steward heard the grinding crash of the collision. They looked out a window and could only see flames. The steward wisely declared, “Let’s scram.” In his haste to leave, accommodated by Andy Anderson and the Arctic Wind, Byrnes forgot his hat and briefcase but still had the beetle.

Byrnes told the Anchorage Daily Times, “I missed the earthquake but had an exciting welcome anyhow. That beetle was the first Khapra beetle ever found in Anchorage, and it’s one I’ll never forget.” Byrnes was later decorated by the Department of Agriculture for his service that evening. Besides a certificate of merit, he received a cash award.

The crew of the Santa Maria received a warm Anchorage welcome once they arrived on land. The Westward Hotel took them in and invited them to a reception dinner planned for a New Mexico senator. A clothing merchant provided shoes, jackets and other clothing needs to those sailors who lost their belongings in the fire.

The Sirrah was left with a hole in its bow but moved away from the burning Santa Maria under its own power. The crew conducted repairs, discharged the cargo and soon left town. The Santa Maria fire expended its fuel and died during the night. Thankfully, the ship did not explode, and only two storage tanks were breached. Barges transferred the cargo to the port.

For their heroics, the Andersons received several honors, not least of all a letter signed by 21 crew members of the Santa Maria expressing their “highest esteem and our undying gratitude to Capt. Jack Anderson and his family on the West Wind.” They also received awards and citations from the Salvation Army, Alaska Press Club and the Maritime Administration. The Carnegie Hero Fund Commission presented Jack, Lois and Andy with silver medals of heroism.

The masters of the Sirrah and Santa Maria provided radically different accounts of the events leading up to the collision. The Coast Guard review noted, “the obvious conflict in testimony of personnel on the respective vessels, though not uncommon in incidents of this nature is, nevertheless, striking in this case.” The Coast Guard review concluded that the tide had indeed pulled the Santa Maria towards Sirrah, aided by negligence from the Santa Maria captain and pilot. Captain Tomter was placed on probation for six months. The pilot, Robert Kamdron, had his license suspended for two months and placed on probation for an additional four months.

In June 1965, after millions of dollars in repairs, the Santa Maria returned to Anchorage with a new paint job and captain. On Aug. 19, 1966, the Santa Maria collided with the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey’s Pathfinder. While the damage was minimal, and there were no reported injuries, the accident occurred 22 months after the collision with the Sirrah and in roughly the same location. History repeats but usually not so similarly.

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Key sources:

“Neglect Ruled in Collision of Oil Tankers.” Anchorage Daily Times, September 2, 1965, 14.

Porter, Al. “U.S. Agricultural Inspector Has a Beetle He’ll Remember.” Anchorage Daily Times, December 5, 1964, 2.

“Sirrah Didn’t Signal, Other Crew Reports.” Anchorage Daily Times, October 22, 1964, 1, 2.

“Tankers Collide, One Burns.” Anchorage Daily News, October 20, 1964, 1,2.

Totten, Mary O. “Men of the ‘Santa Maria’ Tell Their Stories of Collision.” Anchorage Daily News, October 20, 1964, 2.

Totten, Mary O. “Tug Played Major Role in Rescue.” Anchorage Daily News, October 20, 1964, 1, 2.

United States Coast Guard. “Santa Maria-Sirrah Collision and Fire Findings Approved.” Proceedings of the Merchant Marine Council, July 1965, 160-161.

“Vessels Escape Serious Damage in Inlet Collision.” Anchorage Daily Times, August 20, 1966, 2.

David Reamer

David Reamer is a historian who writes about Anchorage. His peer-reviewed articles include topics as diverse as baseball, housing discrimination, Alaska Jewish history and the English gin craze. He’s a UAA graduate and nerd for research who loves helping people with history questions. He also posts daily Alaska history on Twitter @ANC_Historian.

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