CRUISE HISTORY – The S.S. Vestris was a passenger and cargo liner built by Workman Clarke & Co. Ltd. of Belfast, Ireland, for the Lamport & Holt Line. She weighed 10,660 gross tons, had twin screw propulsion, a speed of 15 knots, and could carry 280 first class, 130 second class, and 200 third class passengers with a crew of 250. Launched on May 16, 1912, Vestris made her maiden voyage on September 19, 1912, and was chartered in 1922 to Royal Mail, sailing between New York and Buenos Aires.
Vestris left New York November 10, 1928, with 129 passengers and 196 crew. The next day she ran into a severe storm and developed a starboard list, caused by a partially open coal port four feet above the water line according to testimony later given during the inquiry. The list worsened as first the cargo and then the coal bunkers shifted. An SOS was sent out on November 12, some 200 miles off Hampton Roads, Virginia, and the ship was abandoned. At 1400 hours she fell on her side and sank. Some 112 of the 325 onboard were lost.
Adverse press publicity and public outcry caused Lamport & Holt, already feeling the effects of the deepening depression, to withdraw from the New York service and lay up many of their vessels. It did, however, have its benefits for future seamen and passengers as it influenced life preserver development. It led to the convening of an International Convention for Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) in London in the following year. Rescuers who responded to the Vestris sinking testified that they found many bodies floating face down, even though they were wearing cork life vests. As a result, a U.S. Navy Captain urged that kapok life jackets be required for the merchant marines, because they kept an unconscious individual’s face and head above the water. This resulted in the first SOLAS, agreed in 1929, to win general acceptance by all seafaring nations of any importance.
DISASTER AT SEA
NEW YORK, Nov. 15. – Fred W. Puppe, the first witness at today’s Federal investigation of the Vestris disaster, said that when he went aboard the steamer last Saturday at this port he was informed his cabin steward would be unable to attend him because the steward was drunk. Latest figures indicate that 127 of the 338 persons aboard the Vestris are missing or dead. Seventy of those unaccounted for were passengers. Puppe declared members of the crew took the best boats for themselves. “They winked to their friends to join them,” he testified.
Puppe, whose wife and seven-month-old child were lost, said that when he first went to his cabin he found that most of his baggage was not there. He later located it in the hold, where it had been dumped with the heavy baggage. Later he learned that other passengers had had similar experiences with their luggage. “The handling of the baggage was absolutely careless,” Puppe declared. He said he asked another steward what he should do about personal service and that this employee replied: “I’m not supposed to take care of your cabin, but I will do the best I can to get around to you, because your steward is drunk in too drunk and will he unable to attend to you.”
At dinner Saturday night, Puppe continued, the passengers remarked at the speed the ship was making.
“We said to ourselves, ‘if it goes like this all along we’ll he there in no time,”‘ the witness asserted.
Puppe was on his way to take an executive position in Buenos Aires.
Puppe, apparently deeply affected by his ordeal, told his story in a broken voice. Describing the events of Sunday he said he had awakened at 6 A.M., the hour when the baby, was usually fed.
However, the ship was at such an angle that he found it difficult to move about in the stateroom. His wife, too, was unable to get around comfortably to prepare the infant’s food, so Puppe ran for a steward, intending to order some oatmeal.
No steward answered, and Puppe said he started to prepare the cereal himself on an electric stove.
It spilled a couple of times, he said, demonstrating to United States Commissioner O’Neill how he had endeavoured to keep the pan on the cooker. Puppe said his wife was not feeling well and that he went to breakfast alone.
“I thought”, he testified, “that the ship’s incline was always the same way and that something must be decidedly wrong”
“I’ve travelled a great deal, have been across the ocean many times, and up and down the American itself a great many times, and I know when a ship stands on one side and never turns over to the other side , something is wrong.”
“I met a steward and told him something was decidedly wrong. The steward said to me: ‘You don’t know anything about it. The cargo has shifted. The crew is working on it now. Everything will be straightened out in about an hour.’”
When Puppe went to lunch Sunday noon the ship was listing so badly that, he said, that the passengers in the dining saloon had to hold their plates on the table with one hand while they ate.
On Sunday he said, “my long experience showed me that the list had steadily increased since morning”. He added that during the afternoon he was in his stateroom most of the time caring for his sick baby because of the illness of his wife.
In the middle of the afternoon, however he said, “he went on deck and at that tone noticed that the list had increased even more.
That night his wife had become so ill he called the ship’s doctor. He asked the doctor it he couldn’t get some food from the kitchen for the child. The doctor answered, it was impossible to cook In the kitchen any longer, he said.
Puppe said that at 7 A.M. Monday he wanted some food for his wife and child, but was told that, none was being served. He went himself to the kitchen, where the water was slushing around on the floor, but was told “go get it yourself” when he asked for something to eat. He finally got two bananas.
At 8 o’clock, he testified, Mrs. Puppe wanted some water, and the witness asked for it and was again told “get It yourself.” He couldn’t find any. “By 8 o’clock Monday morning,” he said “I was absolutely sure that an S 0 S had gone out hours before. Anyone with the lives of so many persons on their hands should have called for help long before. I never thought for a moment that there hadn’t been a distress signal.” Puppe’s voice broke at this point. He removed his spectacles, and polished them with his handkerchief before going on with his story.” When I saw there was to, hope, anymore,” he resumed; I took my wife and baby to the smoke room and later to the deck. This was at 9 A.M. We waited on deck, looking for the steamers we were absolutely sure must have been called to our help.
“Other passengers were asking if an S O S had been sent, but I was absolutely sure it must have been.”
“Suddenly, though we heard no orders and though no officers were in sight, the crew began to take down the lifeboats. You could see that none of them had ever even tried to lower a lifeboat before.
There was an absolute lack of knowledge seamanship. They ran from one boat to another, taking things from one and putting them into another. I didn’t realize what this meant, but later I discovered.”
TELLS OF BOAT BREAKING
After telling how he had helped his wife and baby into a boat with other women and children, Puppe told how one of the lifeboats had broken and plunged its occupants into the sea. he got into another himself, he said, and rowed away, not knowing of the fate of his wife and child. Puppe said he found the flares in his boat were wet, that there was scant food and that the water in the casks was salt.
“But at night we saw there were flares in some of the other boats,” he continued, “and then I realized, what it meant when I had seen those men taking things from one boat and putting them into others.”
“They were fixing a few with proper equipment, planning to ride in them themselves, and they winked, to their friends to join them. He described the long vigil of Monday night and how he was picked up early Tuesday morning. He had not then learned that his wife and infant had lost their lives. As Puppe completed his testimony there was a stir in the hearing room as a few unkempt men, their hands and faces bearing fresh scars entered and sat down. Apparently they were members of the Vestris crew.
LACK OF FACILITIES
LAST PHOTO TAKEN ABOARD THE SHIP BEFORE SHE SANK
Puppe asserted that ‘Some of the lifeboats never got away at all, due to the lack of facilities for lowering them. I saw two boats,” he said, “Still hanging on the ship when she went over.” “What side were they on?” asked Federal Attorney Charles H. Tuttle.
“The side that was out of the water,” replied Puppe. “They were resting on the ship’s hull. I could not identify them, but I could see people in them.”
Puppe describing weather conditions preceding, the sinking, said the sea on Sunday was not as heavy as he had seen it on other trips.
“I felt no particularly strong wind – certainly no wind strong enough to heel us over, as the stewards said. The waves were decidedly smaller than I had seen on previous storms.”
Puppe’s narrative then turned to the night he had spent in the lifeboat.
“We bailed all night without stopping,” he related. “We bailed at the rate of about 10 gallons a minute, using two buckets and a ladle. Several passengers jumped out of our boat and made for others because they thought ours would sink.”
“Was the water coming through the seams or over the sides?” questioned Tuttle.
“There was not one slop over the side ever,”‘ replied Puppe emphatically.
The witness testified that the list of the Vestris Sunday morning was ten degrees or less. During the afternoon it was 18 to 20 degrees, he estimated, and Monday morning about 30 degrees.
“Monday morning between 6 and 7 o’clock,” he said, ” I asked a, steward why the engines had stopped. That steward had the nerve to tell me that it was because we wore using all our power for pumping.”
“Did any of the officers or members of the crew at any time give you an explanation of the cause of the list other than that the, wind was pressing you over?”
“No. All the explanation I got was what the steward said–that the wind was pressing us over on one side.”
“Did you ever see the captain or any, of the officers give any command to any one of the crew which was not executed?” asked Tuttle.
“No,” answered Puppe. “I never once saw any officer give any command. The only thing I did see was the first steward or order some of the stewards to go after food for us. They refused flatly. One of them said. ‘I wouldn’t go back there for a thousand dollars.’”
NO OFFICER CAME
“Were any officers in charge, of the lifeboat?”
“No, absolutely not. We shouted up to them to send officers down, that there was nobody to command our boat. We shouted we wanted somebody competent to take command, but no officer came.”
“How many of the crew were in your boat?”
“I don’t know,” said Puppe. “In the condition we were in I couldn’t distinguish passengers from crew.”
The second witness was John Santona, a third-class passenger. His testimony dealt to a large extent with the two boatloads of women and children. He said that a friend in one of these boats called to him where he was standing on the deck an that he started to jump into the craft as it swung on the davit but an officer stopped him.