Bad news traveled slowly in 1986
For all anyone in Baltimore knew on this morning 25 years ago, the Pride of Baltimore, the rakish replica clipper ship that had raised the city's spirits and sailed off to tell our story to the world, was somewhere out on the Atlantic, making its way back to the Chesapeake after a successful, year-long European tour.
The last contact with Pride offices was a telephone call on May 9 from the U.S. Virgin Islands. The ship was about to set out on the final leg of its journey, they reported, homeward bound. The crew was young but well-seasoned, and its captain, Armin E. Elsaesser 3rd, had made the crossing many times. There seemed to be no particular reason to worry.
The first word of the calamity that had befallen the ship came from Joe McGeady, of Severna Park. A veteran of two years aboard the Pride, he was an experienced ocean sailor at 26.
At 4:30 a.m., he called his mother, Emily, by radio-telephone from the Toro, a Norwegian tanker sailing from New York to Venezuela. The Pride had sunk in a storm, he told her. He and seven other survivors had drifted in a rubber life raft for more than four days. Four crew members were missing, including Capt. Elsaesser. Survivors reported seeing two bodies before they drifted away.
Now, word began to spread more quickly as other survivors called their families, and Pride officials in Baltimore. Sometime in mid-morning, I picked up the phone in the old Evening Sun newsroom, three floors above where I sit today on North Calvert Street. It was Chris Hartman, secretary of the Pride's board of directors, who filled me with as much information as he had. I could hardly believe what I was hearing.
As soon as he hung up, I alerted editors to the astonishing news. They began assigning stories and tearing up plans for the paper's afternoon editions. There was no online edition then, only paper and the next run of the presses.
I was assigned to write the main story. By the time the final edition closed a few hours later, 10 reporters and uncounted editors and librarians had pitched in to report, write, edit and file four stories for the main section, with photos and maps. We re-made much of the paper and had it out on the streets on deadline.
"PRIDE OF BALTIMORE SINKS," the banner headline screamed. "8 rescued; 4 missing; 2 dead reportedly sighted"
It was one of the saddest, most exhilarating days I have had in 40 years in the newspaper business. It was the Evening Sun at its breaking-news best.
The tragedy would continue to unfold in the days and months that followed, and we stayed with it. We immediately flew several reporters and photographers to Puerto Rico. The Pride survivors were being airlifted by Coast Guard helicopters from the Toro to the Coast Guard base at Borinquen, and the Evening Sun was there to report it. There would also be an emotional news conference at Martin State Airport when they returned to Baltimore.
And there would be a Coast Guard hearing at the Customs House in Baltimore, where the details of the sinking and its aftermath were explored in days of painful testimony by the crew and others. The Pride had been caught in a microburst - a violent downdraft of cold air from a nearby thunderstorm that capsized the ship and sent the Atlantic pouring in through an open companionway.
Reporters for the old News American covered the hearings alongside the Sun and the Evening Sun. They stayed on the story until someone passed word to them that their owners were closing the paper, forever. Then they stood up and left.
The following winter, the National Transportation Safety Board issued its report on the sinking. It concluded that the microburst had heeled the ship over beyond its ability to right itself, allowing water to pour in.
It said Capt. Elsaesser had reponded properly to the gust, but faulted him and the Pride organization for not storing life vests on the open deck, and failing to maintain more regular communications with the vessel. The NTSB also faulted a Spanish maintenance firm for improperly inserting plugs in the Pride's life rafts during servicing. One of the rafts deflated after the sinking, and the survivors had to inflate the other by mouth as they treaded water, struggling to stay afloat.
The Coast Guard report on the sinking found no evidence of misconduct or negilgence by anyone connected with the ship, but suggested several changes if the city ever chose to replace the ship. .
In the aftermath of the sinking, the city debated, and agreed, with state and private support, to build a replacement ship. The Pride of Baltimore II was designed with slightly less faithfulness to the swift but dangerous 1812 Baltimore clippers. It would have a higher freeboard, more modern communications and better safety equipment. Today's Pride crews would never again go 10 days without calling home.
The day word of the Pride's sinking reached Baltimore, then-Mayor William Donald Schaefer - who had long been a champion of the Pride and its mission for the city - spoke tearfully about the ship and her crew. It was the most eloquent comment I've ever read about the tragedy, which affected him deeply.
"I don't know if any of you went down to the Inner Harbor today and saw the Pride," he said. "I did. I saw it turn, with all its bright lights on, and sail out to sea."
Last Friday, a month after Schaefer was laid to rest, staff members of the Pride of Baltimore Inc., the non-profit that took ownership of the Pride II last year, gathered at the Pride Memorial on the Inner Harbor with current crew members and family of some of those lost on that May day a quarter century ago.
It was a brief and private observance at the families' request, said Linda Christenson, executive director of the organization. Someone hung a wreath on the mast and read a message Capt. Elsaesser had sent to Baltimore just before the ship set sail for home:
"What lies ahead is unknown – a source of mystery and apprehension – perhaps the allure of the sailing life – always moving, always changing, always wondering what the next passage will be like and what we will discover at the other end. This time our destination is home – the Chesapeake Bay and Baltimore. It is always a relief for the captain, and I suspect the ship, to have our lines ashore and fast where Pride is safest, the Finger Piers at the Inner Harbor.”
(PHOTOS: Top: Pride of Baltimore in 1986, handout. Second: Pride II, Jed Kirschbaum, 2010. Third: Sun Photo, Lloyd Pearson, 1980. Bottom: Pride of Baltimore Inc.)