On 4 February 1999, the freighter M/V New Carissa, bound for the Port of Coos Bay to pick up a load of wood chips, found herself in the midst of a major storm only a few miles off the coast of Oregon. Unfortunately, the chain of the anchor her crew had dropped overboard was not long enough to ensure a good hold on the ocean floor and the vessel drifted. New Carissa’s saga was just beginning.
Over the next few days, continued bad weather drove the ship closer to shore and cracks appeared in her hull, raising concerns that her fuel—400,000 gallons of tar-like bunker oil—might leak into the surrounding waters. To mitigate the effects of a possible spill, officials set fire to the ship’s fuel tanks. On 11 February, the stress of the fires and pounding surf combined to crack the vessel in half. On 9 March, after serious complications caused by the snapping of a towline and a grounding, the bow section was towed 250 miles off the coast into water more than 10,000 feet deep. The goal was to sink the bow, stern end first, in order to trap the remaining 130,000 gallons of fuel oil within and send the entire package to the bottom. The unified command that had been dealing with the vessel asked the Navy for assistance.
Commander Robert Thomas, commanding officer of USS BREMERTON (SSN-698) remembers that on 10 March “we were surfaced outside of San Francisco ready to go in and pick up an engineering inspection team and we got the message at five in the morning…to cancel that personnel transfer, turn right around and submerge the ship, go deep and head up off the Oregon coast and be ready to shoot a warshot the next day.” The crew was understandably excited, but cautiously so—BREMERTON would only get to take aim if all else failed.
On 11 March 1999, the attempts to sink New Carissa began. First, an Explosive Ordnance Disposal team was helicoptered onto the stricken ship to attach to the hull 400 pounds of high explosives, which were then remotely detonated. New Carissa settled a bit in the water, but did not sink. Next, the destroyer USS DAVID R. RAY (DD-971) fired 69 rounds of point-detonating 5-inch, 54-caliber projectiles into the vessel at the waterline; New Carissa listed to starboard, then stabilized.
That’s when BREMERTON got the call. From 8,000 yards, she fired a single Mark 48 advanced-capability torpedo which, Thomas said, “performed as advertised,” exploding beneath the hull and causing the vessel to roll over and sink. New Carissa, which had come to be known as “The Ship That Would Not Die,” had finally perished.
“There’s just not a lot of folks out there in the [active] submarine force who have fired a warshot torpedo, and certainly very, very few who have gotten an opportunity to do it in open ocean on short notice,” Thomas remarked. “My crewmen are feeling pretty good about themselves, participating in this. It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.” Given the $1.2 million price tag of the torpedo, Thomas added that he hoped New Carissa’s owners would be held financially responsible for the Navy’s assistance. “If they’d like to send me a check for that torpedo, I’d be glad to take it.”