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Manzanillo 1972 - The PEMEX Fire at the Docks

by Terry Sovil

It was March 13, 1972 and folks broke from a hot day to enjoy lunch and read about Don Luis Echeverria Alvarez who was in Tokyo, Japan for an economic alliance between the countries of the Pacific. The president was of the mind that it was important to pay attention to the economics of the Far East.

Typical of most mornings the vendors were pushing their carts offering fruit, refrescos while others were busy with their shopping. People stopped to chat and exchange news and neighborhood updates.

The harbor was abuzz with workers carrying corn from the ship "Meditate" while others were loading the "Gotaza Jayanti" with sugar. The tanker Mary Ellen was offloading 15 thousand barrels of gasoline and opposite her was the tanker "Abelardo L. Rodríguez", a PEMEX tanker here to fuel the warships of the Mexican Navy.

The Mary Ellen was flying the Panamanian flag but had Liberian registry. Her crew was mostly Italian and they were busy with the process of pumping out their cargo of fuel when flames erupted aboard the vessel.

Mary Ellen at the Dock
The tanker Mary Ellen at the dock.

It was 11:55am and suddenly all work and conversation stopped and all eyes turned in the direction of the large fuel storage tanks. A thick column of black smoke and flames were rising into the sky. Workers close to the conflagration started to run; others were running with them not yet fully understanding what they were running from.

Others closer to the fire were in a stampede to get away, some rushing towards Campos and others heading to the National Highway in cars, on bicycles or scooters and on foot. As the alarm spread offices and commercial sites were abandoned. Some offices actually closed but most just left with their doors wide open. The police moved in and monitored the situation, no looting occurred.

School children were efficiently handled by the discipline of their teachers and they deployed into the surrounding villages. But among neighbors it was uncontrolled panic.

Mary Ellen Scorpion Approaches

Across the bay Bart Varelmann was hard at work on the Roca Del Mar condos next to his hotel, The LaPosada. He and Chris Merson, his partner, were getting photos of their progress on the project. The smoke and flames got their attention and they realized something volatile was burning close at hand.

Mary Ellen Ablaze
The Mary Ellen Ablaze.

Bart, with camera in hand, grabbed photos including this photo of the Tugboat Scorpion making way towards the burning Mary Ellen. There was both professional and volunteer crew aboard the tug. Risking their lives the tug approached the wall of flames. PEMEX workers were able to close off the pipes and valves to stop the flow of fuel.

The crew was led by Captain J. Leoncio Ucha Mora who never lost his composure. Helped by brave volunteers and a part of the crew's tug his plan was to pull the burning Mary Ellen to the middle of the bay where the fire couldn't spread thereby averting a major disaster in the port.

Mary Ellen Afloat
The Mary Ellen afloat away from the docks.

The tug succeeded in getting the heavy mooring lines removed and pushed the tanker out into the bay. As the tanker moved into the middle of the bay it began to drift toward shore. Bart and Chris watched and speculated it was time to get away rather than watch. Like them, others lingered to watch from nearby San Peditro beach as well as on Las Brisas. About the time Bart and Chris were ready to abandon their position, realizing the volatile payload this ship carried, a wind caught the Mary Ellen and began to push it away from shore.

Scorpion Sails toward Middle Beach
The Scorpion sails towards middle beach.

The tugboat Scorpion, meanwhile, made her way toward the middle beach. She had sustained heavy damage in her heroic efforts to get the Mary Ellen away from the docks.

The tug came ashore in the middle of the beach and her crew was received as heroes. Some had minor burns or wounds from their dangerous rescue. Exhausted, they went to a medical facility or to their homes to assure loved ones they were ok and to tell their stories.

The Scorpion on middle beach
Remains of the Scorpion Tug aground on the middle beach.

In spite of their heroic efforts, the crew faced a lawsuit. The tug had been taken without formal permission of the owner or original captain. While it didn't seem logical, because of the dire emergency, the crew was still honored by the Social Club and The Lions. Captain Mora was honored by the mayor for his courage in front of the tug.

The Scorpion on Middle Beach
The Scorpion on Middle Beach.

Manzanillo Port Monument to the Tugboat Scorpion
The bow of the Scorpion is encased in this monument on the Port Malecon in El Centro Manzanillo.

Note: Special thanks to Bart Varelmann who provided photos and gives an account of his observations in his book The Innkeeper. Copies of the book can be obtained at the La Posada in Las Brisas or at Juanito's in Santiago. You may also visit Bart's website at:

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