Summer 1929: Tragedy near Pigeon Point, Conclusion

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The rescue ships carried the injured, stunned and stricken survivors back to San Francisco where they were created at the emergency hospital.
Rumor had it that attorneys for the San Juan and the S.C.T. Dodd scurried among the shocked survivors, urging them to keep quiet and avoid reporter’s questions. Clearly the attorneys were less interested in the passenger’s welfare than the liability of the ship owners.

Despite painful abdominal and spinal injuries, Theodore Granstedt could not be dissuaded from talking, charging cowardice on the part of the San Juan’s crew.

“When the crash came, the entire crew deserted their posts and saved themselves. They made no effort to launch a boat or save a soul,” Granstedt said before nurses on the scene convinced him that he was seriously injured and needed to calm down and rest.

Theodore Granstedt had survived what the San Mateo Times called “the worst maritime tragedy the Pacific Coast had experienced in more than a quarter century.”

The Times noted that 72 people—most of them passengers, many women and children—met watery deaths as the Standard Oil tanker S.C.T. Dodd rammed the San Juan 12 miles off the San Mateo County coast.

The following day Sheriff James J. McGrath and his deputies patrolled the coastline. Hundreds of curious county residents lined the shore as Coast Guard cutters continued a futile search for more bodies.

As the facts were gathered, the tragic story emerged.

According to survivors on deck at the time, the San Juan was sheared almost in half by thee heavy stern of the tanker Dodd and sank beneath the sea before most of the passengers in their staterooms, and the crewmembers in their bunks, had an opportunity to realize the vessel had been mortally struck.

There were indications that a terrific hole had been torn in the side of the San Juan by the impact and she started sinking at once. When the swirling waters reached the engine room, there was a hissing of steam and then the boilers exploded—shattering the ship from stem to stern.

Most of those fortunate survivors were on the deck or in the saloon at the time of the disaster. Those below in their berths or bunks were doomed.

“It was not a matter of four or five minutes before the ship sank,” Charles J. Tulee, the San Juan’s First Mate said. “It was a matter of only a few seconds.”

The second mate backed up Tulee’s version, adding that the vessel sank as he attempted to help some women and children into one of the lifeboats. That lifeboat was the only one that might have been launched—but it was shattered in the boiler explosion, hurling the women into the air, injuring many seriously. Only a few survived.

Until the results of an official investigation there was the usual finger pointing. The owners of the San Juan blamed the tanker Todd, listing the heavy blanket of fog that covered the Pacific at the time as a contributing factor.

Just as insistent was the Dodd’s Captain Bluemchen, who reported that in spite of the fog, the San Juan’s lights were visible, and that she suddenly changed her course, cutting across the Dodd’s pathway.

As Captain Asplund had perished in the disaster, the authorities would never know his version of the events.

Some critics opined that the San Juan was too old to go to sea, but others commented that the steamer’s hull had been inspected by officials and pronounced seaworthy.

Captain Frank Turner, a federal steamship inspector, added that the Titantic was a new ship but she sank almost immediately upon receiving a blow comparable to the one suffered by the San Juan.

The bickering and accusations continued until the official inquiry, including a trial, was completed.

According to reports, the U.S. Steamboat Inspection Service Board found the San Juan inshore of the Dodd, tried to cross the oil tanker’s bow, was rammed and sank within a few minutes on August 29, 1929.

In other words, responsibility for the San Juan disaster was placed squarely on the shoulders of Captain Asplund. This decision did little to mitigate the suffering and loss of life.

The sinking of the San Juan remains one of the worst maritime tragedies that ever occurred off the San Mateo County coastline.

(The End)

Summer 1929: Tragedy at Sea Near Pigeon Point Lighthouse, Part III

sanjuan21.jpeg
The rescue ships carried the injured, stunned and stricken survivors back to San Francisco where they were created at the emergency hospital.
Rumor had it that attorneys for the San Juan and the S.C.T. Dodd scurried among the shocked survivors, urging them to keep quiet and avoid reporter’s questions. Clearly the attorneys were less interested in the passenger’s welfare than the liability of the ship owners.

Despite painful abdominal and spinal injuries, Theodore Granstedt could not be dissuaded from talking, charging cowardice on the part of the San Juan’s crew.

“When the crash came, the entire crew deserted their posts and saved themselves. They made no effort to launch a boat or save a soul,” Granstedt said before nurses on the scene convinced him that he was seriously injured and needed to calm down and rest.

Theodore Granstedt had survived what the San Mateo Times called “the worst maritime tragedy the Pacific Coast had experienced in more than a quarter century.”

The Times noted that 72 people—most of them passengers, many women and children—met watery deaths as the Standard Oil tanker S.C.T. Dodd rammed the San Juan 12 miles off the San Mateo County coast.

The following day Sheriff James J. McGrath and his deputies patrolled the coastline. Hundreds of curious county residents lined the shore as Coast Guard cutters continued a futile search for more bodies.

As the facts were gathered, the tragic story emerged.

According to survivors on deck at the time, the San Juan was sheared almost in half by thee heavy stern of the tanker Dodd and sank beneath the sea before most of the passengers in their staterooms, and the crewmembers in their bunks, had an opportunity to realize the vessel had been mortally struck.

There were indications that a terrific hole had been torn in the side of the San Juan by the impact and she started sinking at once. When the swirling waters reached the engine room, there was a hissing of steam and then the boilers exploded—shattering the ship from stem to stern.

Most of those fortunate survivors were on the deck or in the saloon at the time of the disaster. Those below in their berths or bunks were doomed.

“It was not a matter of four or five minutes before the ship sank,” Charles J. Tulee, the San Juan’s First Mate said. “It was a matter of only a few seconds.”

The second mate backed up Tulee’s version, adding that the vessel sank as he attempted to help some women and children into one of the lifeboats. That lifeboat was the only one that might have been launched—but it was shattered in the boiler explosion, hurling the women into the air, injuring many seriously. Only a few survived.

Until the results of an official investigation there was the usual finger pointing. The owners of the San Juan blamed the tanker Todd, listing the heavy blanket of fog that covered the Pacific at the time as a contributing factor.

Just as insistent was the Dodd’s Captain Bluemchen, who reported that in spite of the fog, the San Juan’s lights were visible, and that she suddenly changed her course, cutting across the Dodd’s pathway.

As Captain Asplund had perished in the disaster, the authorities would never know his version of the events.

Some critics opined that the San Juan was too old to go to sea, but others commented that the steamer’s hull had been inspected by officials and pronounced seaworthy.

Captain Frank Turner, a federal steamship inspector, added that the Titantic was a new ship but she sank almost immediately upon receiving a blow comparable to the one suffered by the San Juan.

The bickering and accusations continued until the official inquiry, including a trial, was completed.

According to reports, the U.S. Steamboat Inspection Service Board found the San Juan inshore of the Dodd, tried to cross the oil tanker’s bow, was rammed and sank within a few minutes on August 29, 1929.

In other words, responsibility for the San Juan disaster was placed squarely on the shoulders of Captain Asplund. This decision did little to mitigate the suffering and loss of life.

The sinking of the San Juan remains one of the worst maritime tragedies that ever occurred off the San Mateo County coastline.

(The End)

Photo: The steamer San Juan, courtesy San Mateo County History Museum, Redwood City

Summer 1929: Tragedy at Sea Near Pigeon Point Lighthouse, Part II

As the San Juan continued south past Pigeon Point, the Standard Oil tanker S.C.T. Dodd was plowing northward up the coast toward San Francisco, nearing the end of her voyage from Baltimore.

The vessels were 12-miles out, off the San Mateo-Santa Cruz coastline when minutes before midnight the sound of a piercing whistle broke the stillness of the night.

Without any further warning, the sickening shriek of metal tearing metal roared through the San Juan’s staterooms. The Granstedts were thrown from their berths. Hearts pounding, pulses racing, the panicked couple threw on clothes and fled to the deck.

The oil tanker Dodd had rammed the San Juan and the old steamer was sinking. Once on deck, the Granstedts encountered an eerie scene of terrified passengers and crew dashing about madly—and the smell of fear was pervasive. Theodore Granstedt saw no order, only chaos.

Some passengers jumped overboard, others were swept away by the powerful waves. Through the foggy mist, Captain Asplund could be seen trying to help women into a lifeboat.

There was no time to reflect, hardly time for prayer: It all happened so fast.

One second the Granstedts were standing beside their good friends, John and Anna Olsen, and their daughter, Helen. The next moment the San Juan was plunging stern first into the sea, creating a whirlpool that sucked them all in the abyss.

Then there was a great and very loud explosion.

Of the original group, only Theodore Granstedt survived. The next thing he knew he had surfaced from beneath the cold water. Searchlights illuminated the sea littered with wreckage—but he did not recognize the faces of people struggling in the nearby surf, clinging to toolboxes, screaming for help.

Miraculously, before the seriously injured Mountain View man lost consciousness, he grasped the piece of floating debris that saved his life.

By now lifeboats had been launched from other vessels in the vicinity: the oil tanker Dodd, the lumber carrier Munami and the motor-ship Frank Lynch. Theodore Granstedt was one of the 38 surviving passengers and crewmembers.

Wife, Emma, whose anxieties were sadly proven valid was one of 72 presumed dead…as were the Olsens and Stanford student Paul Wagner.

Although many of the San Juan’s survivors were crew, Captain Asplund went down with his ship as did the purser, Jack Cleveland.

…To be continued…

Summer 1929: Tragedy at Sea Near Pigeon Point Lighthouse, Part I

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(Above: Emma Granstedt, center; at right, Mrs. Olsen. Courtesy Patrick Moore, click here  4.jpeg (At right: Theodore Granstedt. Courtesy Patrick Moore, click here)

Emma Granstedt felt a premonition of danger as she boarded the popular “commuter steamer” San Juan at San Francisco on Thursday, August 29, 1929.

The middle-aged Mountain View woman tried to explain the feelings she couldn’t shake to her husband, Theodore: She was worried about an accident at sea, she told him.

Theodore assured his uneasy wife that there was nothing to worry about. The venerable 47-year-old iron steamer made routine runs between the City and Los Angeles—and he reminded her about the attractively inexpensive fare, ranging from $8 to $10 per passenger.

He may have pointed to the San Juan’s advertisement in the local newspaper: “A delightful way to travel,” promised the ad. “One fare includes comfortable berth, excellent meals, open-air dancing, promenade decks, radio music—all the luxury of ocean travel. A trip to be remembered! The economic way that entails no sacrifice!”

Premonition or not, it was too late for the Granstedts to change their mind.

It would mean canceling the plans they had made with the Palo Alto friends they were traveling with, John and Anna Olsen and the couple’s 28-year-old daughter, Helen.

The Granstedts and Olsens were traveling to Southern California to attend a wedding anniversary celebration—and the trip also gave them good reason to visit the Granstedt’s daughter, Irene, who was pursuing an acting career in Hollywood.

Emma may have been consoled to learn that only a few days earlier the San Juan had been in dry dock at which time a new rudder and propeller were installed. The vessel was cleaned, painted and the sea valves overhauled. The steamer’s radio was in tiptop shape, and life-saving equipment included six lifeboats and 110 life preservers for adults and 17 children.

Steamboat officials, who inspected the San Juan, pronounced her safe and in fine condition.

Daylight faded and the sky darkened as the sailing hour neared on Thursday, August 29. It was customary for the purser, Jack Cleveland, to sell tickets to impulsive travelers who made a last-minute decision to sail from San Francisco to L.A. One such last-minute ticket-buyer may have been 24-year-old Stanford graduate student Paul Wagner, who was on his way to visit his family in Southern California.

On board the busy steamer there was no hint of anything out of the ordinary—but one significant change had been made: 65-year-old retired Captain Adolph F. Asplund replaced the regular commander who had taken time off for his summer vacation. The experienced Captain Asplund knew every inch of the San Juan, as he had been her captain many years before.

When the San Juan left port, there were 110 men, women and children on board, 65 passengers and 45 members of the crew. All were settling in and a few hours later the steamer approached the beautiful Pigeon Point lighthouse, south of the village of Pescadero.

By now many of the sleepy passengers, including the Granstedts and the Olsens, headed for their staterooms below deck to rest on their first night at sea.

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…To be continued….

Photo: Pigeon Point, courtesy San Mateo County History Museum, Redwood City.