Shipwreck Holds Oil, History

Times Staff Writer

In a lifeboat in stormy waters six miles off Cambria, 22-year-old seaman Richard Quincy was jolted with terror as he watched the Montebello sink. As the torpedoed oil tanker's stern catapulted into the air, the Japanese submarine I-21 was firing at Quincy and the other crewmen desperately trying to row away.

In that frigid dawn two weeks after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the 38 men aboard all made it to shore. But the Montebello plunged to the ocean floor with 3 million gallons of oil -- about the amount that fouled Santa Barbara beaches in the infamous 1969 spill that helped spark the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency.

Shrouded in fishing nets snagged from trawlers above, the World War II wreck has sat in the perfect darkness of the ocean's depths for six decades. Recently, though, researchers in a high-tech sub diving 900 feet below the surface have gingerly explored the massive ship, eager to keep an obscure bit of history alive and a huge load of potentially perilous freight safely buried under the sea.

In the days before the Montebello went down Dec. 23, 1941, anxiety was sky high. Nine Japanese subs were lurking off the West Coast. In the previous 24 hours, the I-21 had fired torpedoes at two other U.S. freighters but missed. In seaside towns, people talked about heading inland. At 3:50 a.m., a torpedo from the I-21 harmlessly rammed ashore, shaking houses and fraying nerves in San Luis Obispo. Not two hours later, the Montebello was hit.

As the United States started fighting in earnest, reverberations from such attacks abated, and the exact location of the wrecked Montebello was forgotten. Now, researchers from two of California's marine sanctuaries are trying to answer a disturbing question: Could the barnacle-encrusted relic -- too deep to raise and too costly to drain -- poison the waters around it and tar the beaches nearby?

The good news is that, judging from data still being analyzed after a series of dives in September, the 83-year-old Montebello is almost eerily intact.

The ship, which is the length of 1 1/2 football fields, is "in remarkably good shape," said Robert Schwemmer, a shipwreck expert with the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary. "It's a pretty awesome sight. She's sitting perfectly upright, as if she had just left the dock. Her rudder is perfectly straight."

More important, the storage tanks with their vast reservoir of oil evidently have not given out. Frame by frame, scientists are comparing videos of their first Montebello expedition in 1996 with those shot last fall. So far, there doesn't seem to be much difference.

"Nothing indicates that the oil is not still entombed," said Schwemmer, adding that, with frigid seafloor temperatures, the Montebello's cargo probably has congealed into a goop as thick as peanut butter. According to one theory, the tanks are still in one piece partly because pressure from the semisolid stuff on the inside is countering the pressure of the ocean on the outside.

Whatever the reason, the oil's apparent stability is a relief to area residents, as are plans to monitor the wreck every five years.

"The last thing we need on our relatively pristine coastline is a leaking oil tanker," said San Luis Obispo County Supervisor Shirley Bianchi, whose cousin helped rescue the Montebello's crew.

Stemming a leak would cost taxpayers millions of dollars. Several years ago, Schwemmer helped investigators pinpoint the sunken freighter Jacob Luckenbach as the source of a periodic oil slick that mired thousands of seabirds. Resting 17 miles off San Francisco, the vessel held less than 3% of the amount of oil still inside the Montebello, but draining it cost more than $19 million.

Furthermore, the Montebello's flat, sandy patch of seafloor is just a mile from the southern edge of the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary and its collection of sensitive habitats.

For decades, only fishing boats chugged around the wreck, casting nets for the abundance of sea life below. In 1996, a team from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which runs the nation's marine sanctuaries, explored it in the Delta, a two-passenger sub that has been used to pore over the Lusitania, the Edmund Fitzgerald and other fabled wrecks.

The team had two aims. One was to help preserve a little-studied slice of California history. In the weeks after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Japanese subs were dispatched to disrupt supply routes and spread panic along the West Coast. Off Eureka, a sub torpedoed the tanker Emidio, killing five crewmen. On Christmas Eve, the freighter Absaroka was hit just off Los Angeles; it limped into port with one fatality.

The researchers' more pressing goal was to check the Montebello for oil leaks -- an elaborate search that even involved hunting for bacteria drawn to hydrocarbons.

Although the ship was in surprisingly good shape, scientists were vexed by a mystery: They didn't know the density of the oil that the Montebello had taken on, an important factor for predicting the likelihood of a leak.

After reading a newspaper story, Richard Quincy called marine sanctuary officials with the answer: At Port San Luis, the Vancouver-bound ship had taken on a load of Santa Maria crude -- oil so thick it had to be heated just to flow.

"I happened to be turning the valves the night we loaded it," Quincy recalled.

Retired from a long career at sea and on the docks, Quincy lives in Danville, just east of Oakland. At 84, he still has vivid memories of the torpedo slamming into the Montebello's hull, the ship listing violently and Olaf Erickson -- captain for all of one night -- sounding the order to abandon ship.

As high seas crashed over the bow, Quincy was standing watch in the murky hours before dawn. He had been aboard for crossings to places as far off as Siberia, but never had he seen anything like the huge dark mass of the sub that suddenly emerged just 300 yards off the Montebello's stern.

"I saw a little flash in the darkness," he said, "and then it hit."

Quincy recalls waves of fear as the sub lobbed shells toward the lifeboats, the twinge of panic when he realized that a thick rope still tethered his boat to the sinking ship, the relief that surged through him when he found a hatchet in the cramped boat -- by sitting on it -- and sliced through the deadly leash.

"It was about dawn," he said. "We pulled away and watched her go down, with her stern going straight up in the air. I remember one of the guys complaining how those SOBs couldn't even wait till after breakfast."

A couple of unarmed tugs made for the site, despite the proximity of an enemy warship. They picked up crewmen from three of the Montebello's four lifeboats. The fourth splintered on rocks close to shore, nearly drowning the captain. A local resident dived through the surf and pulled him to safety.

Miraculously, none of the 38 crew members died.

Quincy declined an invitation last September to inspect his old ship from inside the research sub.

"They called me the day I got out of the hospital," he said. "I told my cardiologist I had a chance to go down, and she about jumped out of her skin."

It's a tricky expedition for anyone. Collapsed masts and other structures, draped in billowing fishing nets, protrude through the underwater darkness.

Thousands of crabs skitter along the deck. Sponges and anemones have planted themselves on the hull, and passing fish are trapped in the waving nets.

"There was such a high concentration of species," said Jean de Marignac, a biologist with the sanctuary. "It was kind of overwhelming."

Watching videos of the dives, Quincy agreed.

He also knows now that he and his crewmates would have been incinerated in a huge fireball if the torpedo had pierced the hull just 12 feet from where it did. It hit an empty storage area instead of a full oil tank.

Sanctuary officials are considering mounting a Montebello display in a visitor center near San Simeon, and not too soon for Quincy.

"I don't know how many people I've talked to who have never heard of the Montebello. I had one fellow call me a liar."

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