Capt. Paul J. Esbensen, 76, NTSB marine investigator


Capt. Paul J. Esbensen, retired senior marine investigator for the National Transportation Safety Board who investigated the sinking of the Pride of Baltimore and later helped restore the Liberty ship John W. Brown, died of heart failure Thursday at Anne Arundel Medical Center. He was 76.

Captain Esbensen was born in Brooklyn, N.Y., and raised on Staten Island.

After graduating from New Dorp High School in 1947, Captain Esbensen began his maritime career as an ordinary seaman on an Army transport until entering the Merchant Marine Academy at Kings Point, N.Y., in 1948.

After graduating in 1951, he spent the next decade working for Moore McCormack Lines.

"I sailed as a third mate, second mate, chief mate for 10 years. ... At first, I worked on freighters," Captain Esbensen told Ernest F. Imhoff, a retired Sun reporter and editor, whose book Good Shipmates: The Restoration of the John W. Brown, was published last year.

He later was assigned to the Brazil and the Argentina passenger liners, where he remained until 1961, when he went to work as dockmaster at Maryland Shipbuilding and Drydock Co. He later oversaw newly built or converted ships during their trial runs.

In 1981, he joined the NTSB. During his 15-year career, he investigated 25 major accidents, including the loss of the Poet, the Mediterranean-bound freighter that departed in 1980 from Philadelphia and vanished without a trace on the high seas; and the 1986 sinking of the Pride of Baltimore in a violent Atlantic storm.

One of his conclusions was that the Pride's two inflatable life rafts had been properly serviced before the doomed vessel left Spain.

"Under his direction, the NTSB did a thorough job. They really tried to figure out in detail what had happened to the Pride and the whole ramification of the accident," said Tom Waldron, a former Sun reporter whose book about the ship, Pride of the Sea, was published in 2004.

He retired from the NTSB in 1996.

Beginning in 1988, he became involved with Project Liberty Ship Inc., the all-volunteer organization that sought to rescue the John W. Brown from the scrapper's torch, and return it from the James River Reserve Fleet to Baltimore, where it had been built at Bethlehem Steel's Fairfield yard in 1942. The Brown was one of the Liberty ships, built during World War II to carry materiel.

He was part of the original crew that brought the ship to Baltimore in 1988, and was its master from 1991 until stepping down because of failing health in 2001.

"Paul led the way in the restoration of John W. Brown and was like a father raising a child. ... The success of the ship today is due to the love, care and devotion of Paul Esbensen," said Helen Delich Bentley, a former congresswoman and chairwoman of the Federal Maritime Commission.

"The things that stand out in my mind was that he was the driving force in getting the ship operational and putting together a quality volunteer crew to operate it. It was very important to him, and he worked hard to build a happy crew. That's his legacy," said Michael J. Schneider, president of Project Liberty Ship.

Capt. Brian H. Hope, a Chesapeake Bay pilot and former chairman of Project Liberty Ship, described Captain Esbensen as having a "vast knowledge of the marine industry and the people in it. As a pilot on the Chesapeake Bay, I've worked with thousands of shipmates over the years, and Paul was truly one of the best."

He could be stern at times but was always aware of the heavy responsibility he felt for the Brown and its crew and passengers.

"He was extremely safety-conscious, which was very important with our largely older and less-experienced crew members. The first thing he did when we were bringing the Brown to Baltimore in 1988 was hold a safety meeting on deck," Captain Hope said.

Captain Esbensen, whose Stevensville home was due east of Thomas Point Shoal Lighthouse, never lost his enthusiasm for the ships that traveled the bay.

He earned a private pilot's license and enjoyed flying. He also liked sailing and collecting maritime memorabilia.

He was a member of St. Martin's Evangelical Lutheran Church in Annapolis.

Services will be held at 1 p.m. tomorrow at Barranco & Sons Funeral Home, Ritchie Highway at Robinson Road, Severna Park. A reception will follow at 3 p.m. at the Fleet Reserve Club, 100 Compromise St., Annapolis.

Surviving are his wife of 54 years, the former Lillian Lotz; two sons, Paul C. Esbensen of Annapolis and Eric N. Esbensen of Mobile, Ala.; two daughters, Carol Ann Beall of Westminster and Norma Jean Gomez of Morehead City, N.C.; a brother, Peter Esbensen of Hertford, N.C.; a sister, Joann Cradick of Flagler Beach, Fla.; and six grandchildren.

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