Lady Bella

Story By Mike Daak
Photos By Kate Stadler
Mike D
This is the Story of The Lady Bella – Ghost Ship

This is the L O N G version of the Lady Bella story – my favorite Midway story.
I would offer a short version but the interesting thing about this story is in the details of the effort spent to find this lost ship.

All Lady Bella Photos, courtesy of Kate Stadler.

I had kept a sort of diary of this story, as it happened. Here it is…

The Lady Bella was a cargo ship and scheduled to arrive in Hawaii on August 11, 1999. The crew was forced to abandon the ship on August 5th, due to a fire in the engine room. The ship is 486 feet long with a cargo-hold of 160 cars, trucks, buses, engines, machinery, paraffin, steel pipe and a chemical called “Sodium Hydroxide”. The chemical became the immediate concern of the crew when the fire started. They made radio contact with a cargo ship, just prior to making their final exit from the Lady Bella. The entire crew of the Lady Bella launched a life raft, left their ship and waited to be rescued from the sea.

A second cargo ship detoured from their original course to offer aid to the abandoned crew members. The owners of the Lady Bella could not negotiate a deal with the rescue ship to stay on-site with the Lady Bella, so – the Lady Bella was left adrift in the Pacific, with no crew.

Per the rules of the open sea, anyone finding the ship can claim it. Anyone claiming the ship must also accept responsibility for it. An abandoned ship can be claimed by simply tying onto to it with a small rope.

MPC was initially contracted by the insurance company for Lady Bella to find the ship and reclaim it. The 95-foot SS Midway ship and crew were initially hired for this mission. Later, one of the Midway tugboats was also hired to accompany the SS Midway to search for the Lady Bella. In addition, planes flying to/from Midway were requested to visually look for the ship.

After first arriving at the estimated location of the Lady Bella, they only found an abandoned life raft bobbing on the ocean. Several days were spent looking for the ship but it could not be found. The Lady Bella life raft was pulled back to Midway Island as proof that they were on-site.

Several attempts to find The Lady Bella were made, prior to my start of my diary. The ship was found, then lost again, prior to the September 30, 1999, entry below.

September 30, 1999 –
The second time the ship was found, all fires were out. The Ship’s cargo hold seemed to be OK, but no one knows for sure. The fire had started in the ships engine compartment and basically wiped out the living quarters. The engine room was also taking on water when the ship was abandoned.

The owners of the Ghost Ship, the Lady Bella, have paid $7,500.00 for custom satellite imagery passes over the Pacific to find their lost ship. The first satellite pass did not find the ship. Even more amazing, it did not find the SS Midway. It turns out that the SS Midway was only slightly outside of the satellite image target path. Due to very low fuel supplies, the SS Midway has been drifting for the past 2 days waiting for satellite imagery to ID the ships’ location. The seas have been very bad, but the owners of the ship had high hopes with the satellite imagery idea. They decided to purchase another image pass with a slightly different target path. Today those results came in – no ship. Hard to believe that a 500-foot cargo ship cannot be found with this much effort and high-tech imagery.

The primary mission of our SS Midway was to tie a line on the ship and reclaim it for the owners. They were also planning to install a solar powered transmitter on board the Lady Bella so that the world could keep track of it.

The ship presented no immediate danger to the US so it was not high on the Coast Guard’s priority list. The Coast Guard had been very helpful in providing the best estimate coordinates based on winds and water current.

Today the Coast Guard advised that they will be flying in a nearby region on a different mission. The Coast Guard offered to look in the general area in conjunction with their primary mission. This is exactly what was needed about 3 days ago when the SS Midway was on-site. The SS Midway is now being forced to return to Midway. The owners of the ship have decided that they’ve spent enough money looking for it.

The Lady Bella had been found 3 times – first by the passing freighter who rescued the crew, next by the Coast Guard on a non-related mission and then by another freighter.

Photo Credit – US Coast Guard

October 29, 1999 –
The Lady Bella (our Ghost Ship) has been bobbing around the Pacific since it was abandoned on August 5th.

The owners of the ship and the ship’s insurance company were able to provide tracking data that shows the ship drifting in giant circles in the Pacific. They offered predictions that it would sooner or later crash into a reef and could offer serious environmental damage. The Coast Guard agreed to fly their C130 a dedicated mission to find the ship once again. They were planning to drop a device in the water that would stay with the general water currents of the ship and broadcast coordinates for others to find it. The only problem is that the device they were going to drop would only transmit for 2 days before its batteries were depleted.

The Ghost Ship was found again yesterday by a Coast Guard C130 about 300 miles from Midway. It has now been found 5 times. Currently plans are being made, once again, on how to find the ship (with surface equipment), claim the ship and decide what to do with it.

November 3, 1999 –
The Ghost Ship (Lady Bella) has been found again!

Members of Rex Terry’s company, who often do this type of recovery work, flew to Midway today with a mission to find the ship and claim it. They were able to spot the ship on their way to Midway. It is now only 153 miles away from Midway. Some of the best navigators are predicting that the Ghost Ship could arrive at Midway in 10 days. It’s was drifting at 20 miles per day.

All this time, we had been trying to find the Lady Bella when all we had to do was let the Lady Bella find us.

The Lady Bella had found 6 times since it was abandoned on August 5th. We notified the Coast Guard of the new coordinates and the predicted drift course. They may also become involved again.

Rex Terry’s crew will be hiring our SS Midway (again) to go to the Ghost Ship while his airplane keeps us updated with accurate coordinates. They are planning to tie up to the ship and re-claim it. They will also go on-board the ship and see if it is towable. If it can be towed, they were planning to most likely tow it to Canada. Who knew what kind of shape it is in after bobbing around the Pacific for 3 months.

Even getting on-board a ship of this size will be a big effort. There will be no one on it to help with the transfer. Depending on the seas, and they have been very rough lately, they may only be able to stay with the ship and keep a line attached. The ship is loaded with 160 cars and Sodium Hydroxide. I’m told that when sodium hydroxide mixes with water it becomes volatile and could explode which is one of the reasons that the ship was abandoned to begin with.

November 5, 1999 –
Today the SS Midway and the airplane returned to the last coordinates. While the SS Midway was doing a surface search, with radar, the airplane was also searching from high above with radar and by sight.

After searching until dark, they were NOT able to find the ship. The SS Midway is a small ship, only about 95 feet long. The seas were very rough, but they will continue searching through the night with radar. The airplane returned to Midway for fuel and pilot rest and they will start all over again tomorrow at first light.

The Coast Guard may also become involved tomorrow, again.

November 6, 1999 –
At first light this morning, in the rain, the King Air, left Midway again to search for the Ghost Ship, Lady Bella. The Ghost Ship is estimated to be closer to Midway than ever before. Our SS Midway is on-site and is now drifting to establish water current drift rates. Since the action is now closer to Midway, there were better communications with both the aircraft and our SS Midway ship.

The latest is that the King Air aircraft was reporting a hot engine but was going to continue to search as long as they could. The King Air plane was chartered by Rex Terry, an independent business man from Texas, for a defined period of time. The pilots have other full-time jobs and must return to Honolulu after this morning’s search. Rex is planning to charter another plane with crew to continue his search. He was also trying to set up some large tugboats that would be ready if needed.

The Ghost Ship is still in international waters, but the Coast Guard is now more concerned about the ship because of its latest coordinates and drift coarse. The Coast Guard had been trying to encourage us to keep looking for the ship. They have made it known that if the ship gets within 24 miles of Midway that they will sink it. They will most likely use F15’s from Hawaii to do the job. MPC was trying to encourage the Coast Guard to launch their C130 to find the ship again since our SS Midway is now on-site. Timing is becoming critical now. If the ship were found by our SS Midway today, there may not be enough time to launch tugs from Hawaii. We would have also consider launching our tugboats from Midway in an effort to keep it outside the 24-mile limit. Our Midway tugboats aren’t big enough to tow a 486-foot ship, but they may be able to push it into a holding pattern.

We have estimated that Rex Terry has already spent nearly $100,000.00 of his own money on this mission with no guarantee of a return on his investment.

The last sighting of the ship was on Thursday. For all we knew, it may have already sunk but we are still looking for the Ghost Ship, Lady Bella.

November 6, 1999 –
Daylight is now closing. The Ghost Ship Lady Bella remains unclaimed.
The SS Midway is still on-site but is now underway on another grid pattern search.

November 6, 1999 –
I will not be able to provide any further updates of the Ghost Ship story until I return to Midway in a week or so. My father died today.

November 12, 1999 –

The coast guard sent a C130 out last weekend and spotted the ship. At the time, the SS Midway was about 80 miles away and did not get on scene until the next morning. Crew from the SS Midway boarded the Lady Bella on last Monday and placed a GPS transmitter on board (so it won’t be lost again). The ship is sitting low in the stern because of some flooding, associated with the fire suppression. Fire damage is limited and most of the cargo appears intact. The ship’s drift path has shifted to the west and, more recently, to the north….so it appears there is no imminent risk of grounding. At this point, the SS Midway will likely remain on station until a contracted salvage tug arrives from Honolulu.

November 26, 1999 –
The Lady Bella is a Ghost Ship once again!

We received word that Lady Bella has broken loose from its tow with the ocean tug, Nokia, and is now drifting once again. The large tug from Honolulu had been towing Lady Bella against very heavy seas when they noticed that they were making negative progress.

For the past 4 days, Midway had been having near hurricane force winds. Our winds had been not less than 40 mph and as high as 69 mph. This has caused lots of trouble with trees and power lines all over the island. Several roofs and buildings are even beginning to show wind damage. The ocean is rolling over the top of our harbor piers. During my time on Midway, I had not witnessed winds that were so bad for so long. The latest estimate was that we should have at least 24 more hours of heavy winds.

The Lady Bella had been rigged with log chain for towing. Each link of the log chain weighs 30 pounds. This is a serious chain that is about 260 feet long and then connected to a longer cable. The tugboat was towing the ship against 18-foot seas when they discovered that they were being pulled backwards by the Lady Bella. When they increased the thrust, the chain finally broke. At this time, we have been told that the ship should not drift toward any island and the large tugboat is still staying with the ship. The Lady Bella and the tugboat are now about 230 miles from Midway.

November 27, 1999 –
The Lady Bella is still on top of the water and still drifting. The Honolulu tugboat, Nokia, has now made a call to Midway Phoenix for assistance to re-connect the tow line to the Lady Bella. Our SS Midway was in-harbor at Midway and ready for a trip, not related to the Lady Bella, but is now being reconfigured for assisting the Lady Bella – again.

Our winds at Midway had let up a little and shifted directions. Wind speeds are now around 28 mph. Winds are from the SE and blowing debris onto the runway. This morning, our Island Manager actually found a fish ball on the runway. Heavy winds were measured at 69 mph for four days in a row. Lots of damage around the island.

Sea conditions at the Lady Bella are still very bad. The tug crew has estimated that they are in about 18-foot seas, but our local SS Midway driver thinks they are probably much higher. The tugboat cannot even get close to the Lady Bella with seas this bad. The ship is being allowed to drift on her own. The stern of the Lady Bella is now at sea level. It has apparently taken on more water since it was last boarded. There are lots of equipment pieces banging around on the inside of the engine room which was totally flooded to put out the initial fire. One member of the Rex Terry crew said the Honolulu tugboat (Nokia) was costing him $12,000.00 per day. Our SS Midway will cost them an additional $7,500.00 per day. Before you know it, we’re talking real money. The ship is still closer to Midway than to Hawaii.

One other note, we discovered why the Lady Bella was so hard to find. The rudder of the ship is fixed at a steady slow turn. The ship is big enough (486 feet) that it sails when the winds are blowing. Most of the surface hunting for the Lady Bella was done using ocean current drift predictions. As it turns out, the winds were allowing the Ghost Ship to sail the Pacific and against ocean currents.

December 1, 1999 –
Our SS Midway ship left Midway with plans to repair the towing bridle between the ocean tug and the Lady Bella. By the time our SS Midway arrived on-site the seas and winds were mostly normal again. This time they rigged two chain bridles to the Lady Bella. Now there are 2 log chain bridles that are attached to about 2000 feet of cable. The recent heavy seas have really tossed vehicles on the top deck. Many of the trucks started out with cars strapped to their beds. Some of those cars have since broken loose and are now on the top deck, some are hanging over the side of ship.

At one point in time, they were going to pull the Lady Bella close to Midway so that sea water could be pumped from the ship and to refuel the tugboat. Since the seas have now returned to normal, they have once again decided to pull toward Honolulu. The ocean tug (Nokia) pulling the Lady Bella is low on fuel and may not have enough to make it back to Honolulu. They are now arranging to have the tugboat re-fueled while underway.

Weather here at Midway is perfectly normal once again. The water around Midway is smooth enough for water skiing and the sun is shining bright.

The crew of the SS Midway somehow managed to rescue the blue car (in this photo) before it fell into the sea.  They brought it back to Midway.  No one seems to know what happened to that little blue car, after it was brought to Midway.

December 12, 1999 –
The Lady Bella is approaching Hawaii. As we had anticipated, the State of Hawaii will not allow the Lady Bella to come into any port in the State. They arrived at their destination location today which is about 6 to 8 miles outside of the legal boundary for the State of Hawaii.

The salvage crew, that has claimed the Lady Bella, is planning to pump all water out of the engine room, stabilize the cargo and prepare for another long pull to South America. Rex Terry’s organization will most likely find a port in South America that will allow the Lady Bella to off-load and sell the cargo.

January 17, 2000 –
Today we received a message indicating that the Lady Bella was allowed to come into port at Pier 7 at Barbers Point, Hawaii. The ship has has now been there since January 15, 2000. The message states that the vessel is in good condition. It also says that they are continuing to de-water the vessel. The message also states that the ship has “leaking hull penetrations”.

They are planning to continue removing oily water from the engine room. There is also a hole in the upper #4 cargo hold. Our message states that the case is still pending.

The ship had been lost, found, then pulled around for 4 months before finally arriving at Barbers Point.

*Lady Bella sued – April 3, 2000

An abandoned cargo ship that was towed to Kalaeloa Barbers Point Harbor in January is the subject of a lawsuit filed by the salvage company that found the vessel adrift off Midway Island last year.

According to industry sources, Sunbelt Surplus Valve Inc. of Texas filed a lawsuit against the 486-foot Lady Bella in U.S. District Court on February 28, seeking $4 million for the salvage job. Sunbelt wants to impose a lien on the vessel and its freight which includes vehicles, engines, machinery, paraffin, steel pipe and other cargo.

The Lady Bella caught fire north of Midway last August and was abandoned by the crew who were picked up quickly by a passing vessel. It drifted for four months before Sunbelt chartered a tug to bring it to Hawaii.

Mike Daak
Midway Island, 1983 – 2002

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