TEAMWORK - Case: fire, tanker Jupiter

by CWO Dan Waldschmidt, USCG
September 1990, Michigan
[Reprinted from, Shipmates, 9th Coast Guard District publication, January 1992.]

“If the Coast Guard could give out medals for teamwork to everyone involved in the tanker vessel Jupiter operation, then everyone would get one,” Capt. Tom Daley said. Daley is the commanding officer of Coast Guard Marine Safety Office, Detroit. He was the federal on-scene coordinator, overseeing three dozen agencies and over 400 people during the Jupiter explosion and fire at a fuel storage facility on the Saginaw River, September 16, 1990.  He also oversaw the vessel’s subsequent salvage.

In the blink of an eye, a quiet Sunday morning in Bay City, Michigan turned chaotic. More than a million gallons of unleaded gas went burning out of control at the fuel storage dock. The 18-man crew of the Jupiter were in the river perilously close to the burning tanker. Additionally, all but one of the mooring lines that held the vessel to the dock had parted in the explosion. If the fire had parted the remaining line the Jupiter would have become a potential bomb, floating down the Saginaw River. It was not possible to individually recognize the 400-plus persons, each a part of the Jupiter operation, during the Jupiter awards ceremony, December 10, 1991 in Bay City. Still, 19 people were cited for heroic actions during the response phase of the Jupiter operation.

Medals went to seven Coastguardsmen from Station Saginaw River, five Coast Guard Reservists from Reserve Unit Saginaw River, two Coast Guard Auxiliarists, two Bangor Township firemen, two employees of the Total Petroleum Company and a U. S. Naval Sea Cadet who is now on Coast Guard active duty. Rounding out the ceremony were three Coast Guard Unit Commendations awarded to personnel at Marine Safety Office Detroit, Station Saginaw River and Coast Guard Cutter Bramble.

“I am awed by the thought of fighting a million gallon gasoline fire,” Ninth District Commander, Rear Adm. Gregory A. Penington said. Penington and Michigan Congressman Bob Traxler presented the medals at the awards ceremony. “I wonder what the first responders on-scene thought when they heard the massive explosion and saw 100-foot flames leaping skyward,” Penington pondered.

Among the first rescuers were Coast Guard Auxiliarists Robert and Jean Colby, who arrived on scene only moments after the Jupiter exploded. When the Colbys arrived, many Jupiter crewmen were already in the water, several of them without personal flotation devices. The Colbys could hear men yelling that they were unable to swim. Undaunted by the smoke and intense heat, Robert Colby maneuvered his boat toward the Jupiter.

“We were close enough to touch the Jupiter,” Robert Colby said, “and we could hear the fire crackling.” According to the citation that accompanied the Colbys’ Gold Lifesaving Medals, their “determined efforts, outstanding initiative, and fortitude during this rescue while jeopardizing their own safety were instrumental in saving the lives of eight people.

“I’m honored,” Jean Colby said while looking around at the more than 100 people who attended the awards ceremony. “It’s so nice to see regulars congratulating Reservists, Reservists congratulating Auxiliarists, and Auxiliarists congratulating regulars. It confirms the fact that we’re just one big family,” she said adding, “It also confirms the fact that we can perform well as a team.”

Since establishment of the Lifesaving Medal in 1874, 645 Gold Lifesaving Medals have been bestowed. The Colbys now join the distinguished group of brave Americans who have been recognized for over a century for acts of heroism in saving or endeavoring to save others from shipwreck and other perils of the water.

Moments after the Colbys pulled alongside Jupiter, a 41-foot utility boat from Station Saginaw arrived on-scene. EM1 Mike Klaczkiewicz, a member of Reserve Unit Saginaw River, was boat coxswain of the 41-footer. MST2 Leo Trahan, another Reservist, was also on board. “I kept telling Mike to go faster,” Trahan said, “He kept telling me that he was giving it all it had.”

“As we came upon the scene, we saw people on the fantail waving their arms, screaming and jumping into the water,” Seaman Jim Huffman said. Huffman was another Reservist who was part of the 41-footer boat crew. Huffman, Trahan, and Klaczkiewicz received the Coast Guard Medal for their heroic actions. Then Sea Cadet Lynn Kulinec, also on board, was awarded the Meritorious Service Medal.

All but one of the Jupiter’s crew were rescued during the fire; the remaining crewman, a non-swimmer, drowned before assistance arrived. With the Jupiter’s crew accounted for, thoughts and actions turned toward securing the burning ship to the dock. A team of Coast Guard regulars, Reserves and Bangor Township firemen accomplished the task. Reservists MK2 Daniel Cummings and BM2 Paul Cormier earned Meritorious Service Medals for climbing aboard the burning vessel and securing a cable to the Jupiter’s anchor so it would not drift further out into the shipping channel.

In addition to the individual awards, three unit awards were presented during the ceremony. Coast Guard Station Saginaw River earned the Coast Guard Unit Commendation Ribbon for its “timely response, work with state and local forces, and controlling what has been described as the worst disaster on the Great Lakes in recent history,” according to the citation. Eighteen Coast Guard Reservists, as well as Kulinec, were included in the Station Saginaw River award.

“I have never witnessed such outstanding cooperation between such a wide range of federal, state, and commercial organizations,” commented Captain Daley. “Everyone involved knew their jobs and did them well. The people who got awards were only a small percentage of the people whose outstanding work is highly commendable.”

Petty Officer Klaczkiewicz reinforced that thought in a personal letter to Rear Admiral Penington, stating, “It is my sincere hope that the Jupiter fire incident will be a reminder to everyone of the great team the Coast Guard becomes when all its elements work together.”