The Ship that Initiated my Deep Sea Career
depicted Images, copied from the
pages of my German seaman's book involved several German ships, namely; M/S
Steinberg, M/S Katja-S, M/S Ana Wesch and the M/S Max Bornhofen.
preceding German ships engaged my teenage years in the shaping of a seaman, able
to gain enough sea time to enter officer training school.
The preceding German ships engaged my teenage years in the shaping of a seaman, able to gain enough sea time to enter officer training school.
Captain Fritz Schwendrat, a man of
strong seamanship qualities, on the bridge wing of the M/S Steinberg, while
docking in Leixões, Portugal (circa 1970).
First Mate van Husen, the Captain's step-son on the bow of the M/S Steinberg while docking in Leixões, Portugal (circa 1970).
The years that followed my service onboard the German ship M/S Steinberg, built in 1966 by BUSUMER SCHIFFSWERFT, BUSUM, GERMANY, then renamed Niolon and subsequently renamed M/V Lucona, I was unaware of the events below depicted. Given the power of the internet, it was recently that I learned the fate of the ship that initiated my deep sea career; the M/S Steinberg. Vividly, I remember being the last to leave the ship, together with Captain Fritz Schwendrat, just before the M/S Steinberg was renamed M/V Niolon.
Witnessing events throughout my sea career that mimic the demise of the M/S Steinberg, where well-to-do-humans engage in corruption to satisfy their greed, it is difficult to entertain thoughts that humans will ever live in a world free from moral perversion, virtue impairment and all pervasions that prevent a peaceful lifestyle.
The luxury and corruption among the upper classes is obsessive with a strong
indication of mental illness.
The luxury and corruption among the upper classes is obsessive with a strong indication of mental illness.
M The Lucona Case M
The Ship that Toppled the Austrian Government
On January 23, 1977, six years after my
service onboard the German built and registered cargo ship M/S Steinberg, then
renamed Niolon and subsequently renamed M/V Lucona, registered under the
Panamanian flag, the ship was sailing along the Indian Ocean, approximately 200
miles north of the Maldives Islands, when a violent explosion in the forward
cargo hold rived her hull apart. Supposedly,
the ship that initiated my deep sea career, was carrying valuable cargo of
uranium ore processing machinery from the Italian Port of Chioggia to the Port
of Hong Kong. The cargo owner, Austrian businessman Udo Proksch insured the
cargo for the equivalent of $18 million US dollars. The underwater image
below, shows the aft part of the M/S Steinberg/Lucona. Specifically, the stairs
leading to the boat deck and the galley window, starboard side of the ship.
The underwater image below, shows the aft part of the M/S Steinberg/Lucona. Specifically, the stairs leading to the boat deck and the galley window, starboard side of the ship.
According to the ship survivors, the explosion sent the ship to the bottom of the Indian Ocean within two minutes, taking its valuable cargo. The M/V Lucona heeled slightly and then going down by bow first. The survivors later testified, how they saw the wheelhouse, smokestack and the stern disappear one after the other. The M/V Lucona’s propeller was turning as the stern sank beneath the Ocean surface, recalled by the six of the twelve crew, including the captain’s wife that survived, clinging to life rafts until a Turkish tanker sighted them and picked them up ten hours later.
When Udo Proksch proceeded to file his insurance claim for the value of the ship's cargo complications begun. The insurance company, Wiener Bundeslander Versicherung, better known as the Viennese Provincial Insurance Company, partly owned by the Austrian People’s Party also known as the Catholic Conservative Party and owned by the Catholic Church together with private investors. The Provincial, as the Austrian media called it, had been happy to accept Proksch’s lucrative premium of about $160,000 US dollars when the deal was signed on May 6, 1976. After all, it was his house insurance company where he maintained a running account of over 70 million Austrian schillings.
picked the insurance company carefully. He was aware that some Bundeslander
executives had been faking or kiting insurance claims, then directing the
payoffs either into their own pockets or to the leading Austrian Conservative
Party, the People's Party. He counted on using this knowledge to force the
company to pay up. A photo of Udo Proksch shown below.
photo of Udo Proksch shown below.
At about the same time of the insurance dealings, Proksch, a military buff, talked the defence minister, Karl Luetgendorf, into letting him make an army training film. Luetgendorf, a Club 45 member and Zapata shareholder, told the army to give Proksch full cooperation. Proksch walked away not only with a film but with about 250 pounds of explosives.
Luetgendorf resigned in 1980 under fire in a case, allegedly involving Proksch,
connected to illegal arms shipments to Libya. A year later he was found dead in
a forest. Police and doctors ruled he shot himself. But suspicions remain; The
shot shattered his teeth, indicating he did not put the gun in his mouth, in the
manner of most suicides, but shot himself through clenched teeth. The image
below shows Karl Luetgendorf, left and Udo Proksch, right.
The image below shows Karl Luetgendorf, left and Udo Proksch, right.
For years the Socialists Party and the Catholic Party ruled Austria with no party achieving a majority government. At the time of the sinking, the Socialists were the dominant partner under an uneasy governance of “Red-Black” coalition.
Udo Proksch was no ordinary Austrian. An immigrant from East Germany, he managed to accumulate a large fortune by an astute, better said devious business practices, accompanied by an ill-mannered, coarse and contemptible behaviour and appearance. Better said, a bully. Born in 1934 in Rostock, Germany, to a family of Nazi loyalists. When he was a little boy, his father sent him to a Nazi youth camp where he hated the discipline and used to wet his bed. Yet, later in life, he use to say to his friends; “I was the smallest in the class, but the strongest". Surely, he was at the bottom of the pecking order, until the great Heinrich Himmler himself, head of the dreaded SS and Gestapo, visited the school and transmitted greetings to Udo from his “brave” father. At once, the scorned little kid became one of the big boys. At this Nazi youth camp, Proksch learned the value of influence over others.
After the second World War, Udo dropped out of school and trained to be a swineherd in Communist East Germany. Escaping to West Germany, he became a coal miner in the Ruhr. He also worked for a time as a corpse washer. Moving to Austria, he worked in a plastics factory that specialized in fancy eyeglasses. He acted in movies and became an expert baker. He talked his way into public relations and set himself up as an industrial designer. With another German expatriate named Hans Peter Daimler, he built up a large business empire characterized by secretive and often fraudulent deals.
Hans Peter Daimler,
a German related to the
Daimler-Benz fortune, was quiet and restrained as Proksch was noisy and
flamboyant. He wore dark suits and gold rimmed glasses coupled with an icy
demeanour. Some of Proksch’s associates use to say they feared Daimler and
apprehensively pointed out how easy it would be for him to arrange a fatal
automobile accident; “much easier than shooting” said one of them. Daimler was
apparently the brains of the partnership. He knew enough about science and
technology to sound convincing, also a master of creative bookkeeping. Proksch
had a surplus of crazy and inventive ideas, but was embarrassingly short on
know-how. The image below shows Udo Proksch, left and Hans Peter Daimler,
The image below shows Udo Proksch, left and Hans Peter Daimler, right.
Physically unpresentable, Proksch was a short, fat, grubby man with porcine features. His shirts were usually streaked with sweat. Yet he seemed to have been a kind of tubby Svengali, seducing women right and left. He was married four times, once to a star of the Vienna City Theater Company and once to a great-grand-daughter of the composer Richard Wagner. He was known to have made countesses pregnant. He also defrauded sober businessmen into doubtful deals.
Among his business enterprises, Proksch owned Vienna’s most illustrious "konditorei" named Demel’s, whose delicious pastries were known throughout the gourmet world. For 200 years, Demel’s had been the appointed purveyor of pastries to the Royal and Imperial Court of the Hapsburg Empire, until World War I put an end to that dynasty.
More important, Udo Proksch ran Club 45, located upstairs from Demel's, bringing together everyone who was anyone in Austria; politicians, bankers, generals, judges, editors. Because the Socialists Party run Austria almost nonstop since World War II, most of the members belonged to the nation's Socialist elite where some suspected that Proksch also had links with the Soviet Union’s secret police, the KGB, and Middle Eastern arms dealers. Proksch claimed to be a friend of the mighty, from Nikita Khrushchev to King Hussein to Ferdinand Marcos.
Of Udo's two cofounders of Club 45, one, Leopold Gratz, former foreign minister, president of parliament and mayor of Vienna and subsequently forced to resign in disgrace, brought down by his links to Proksch. The other, Hannes Androsh former finance minister and heir apparent to the prime ministry of Austria was destroyed by an earlier scandal and convicted of perjury.
Thorough in his scheming, Proksch wove a network of connections within Austrian military circles, which he exploited to the full. Foreign dignitaries were also among the guests at Club 45, including Imelda Marcos, wife of the dictator of the Philippines at the time, and Manuel Noriega, then dictator of Panama. Proksch and Imelda were friendly enough to dance together at the Vienna Opera Ball. Imelda kept a photograph of the happy occasion when she went into exile.
For six years that followed the sinking of the M/V Lucona, the Provincial and Proksch brought civil lawsuits against each other with no results. Suspecting fraud, the Provincial hired a Swiss private detective named Dietmar Guggenbichler, a man of strong right-wing views and therefore unreasoningly against anything connected with socialism. He was also tireless in pursuit of his prey. Guggenbichler was vain, to the extent that he made a videotape of himself during his travels, in which he presented himself as an ice-cold snoop who was lightning quick on the draw. The Vienna newspapers liked to call him “Dirty Dietmar", after the American movie hero Dirty Harry.
Within a few weeks, Guggenbichler compiled an extensive file on Udo Proksch, including evidence that the valuable cargo on the M/V Lucona was actually the wreckage of a conveyor belt from a closed-down coal mine. His file also claimed that Proksch had blown up the ship by means of a spark or timed explosion to collect the insurance money. Both allegations turned out to be true. “Dirty Dietmar” was thorough if not subtle. Once, shadowing the Austrian foreign minister, a close friend of Proksch’s, on behalf of the insurance company, he stationed himself in the lobby of a Swiss hotel and photographed a secret interview. His report to his client read; “19:15 hours: through the entrance stepped a man whom we identify as Mr. Udo Proksch. To be completely sure, we wanted to verify this with a telephone call. However, this became superfluous when two more persons entered, to whom the presumed Udo Proksch was introduced as Mr. Udo Proksch".
The case dragged on until 1982, when a court ordered Bundeslander to pay. Bundeslander fought back by calling on the government to investigate the case. The investigation began in 1983 but was blocked by the Justice Minister, Harald Ofner, and his successor, Karl Blecha, both Club 45 members.
In 1983, Guggenbichler delivered his extensive collection of evidence to the district attorney of Salzburg, resulting in charges of murder and fraud against Udo Proksch, Hans Peter Daimler, and a third party. Guggenbichler was afraid that if he had gone to the authorities in Vienna the case would have gone nowhere, for Proksch’s influential friends would have applied pressure on the courts to quash the proceedings. Nevertheless, the district attorney in Salzburg forwarded the case to the authorities in Vienna, where the investigation was sidetracked. Instead of being treated as a preliminary investigation with an independent investigative judge, it was handled under preliminary inquiries, a category in which every step had to be approved by the attorney general. Certainly, Udo’s friends saw to it that the approval was not forthcoming.
The indictment against Proksch said the M/V Lucona was chartered by a Swiss company named Zapata, which Proksch controlled in collaboration with Hans Peter Daimler. Zapata bought two companies owned by Proksch. One of the firms then bought an obsolete coal-mining plant and sent it, partially in Austrian Army trucks, to a depot owned by the second company, located in the town of Piesting, near Vienna.
Udo’s alliance with the Socialist Party dated back to 1971 when he purchased Demel’s. Typically, he used friends as fronts in his business dealings; in the Demel’s purchase, it was a countess. “Now the proles have taken over the rudder. I’ll give them what they don’t have; a place where they can dance, gorge themselves, and booze it up, but they’ll dance to my tune". Udo's Club 45 became the place where political deals were struck and where careers were made and unmade while its smiling host plied his friends with excellent coffee and pastries, food, and wines. It paid off.
Udo Proksch loved playing the role of court fool for Viennese high society and Socialist grandees. His pranks and follies were legendary. For example, claiming that Austria’s cemeteries were overcrowded, he founded the Vertical Burial Society with the idea of saving space by burying people vertically in transparent plastic tubes instead of horizontally in coffins. In place of a costly tombstone, the head of the deceased person would protrude above ground. He invented a toothpaste tube that could be squeezed from both ends, calling it a marriage saver. He was known for shooting champagne glasses off serving trays at Vienna’s better restaurants. All this, and more, was pardoned because he was so amusing. Some wondered, however, whether he was playing the court fool for the rich and powerful or manipulating them with these antics for his own amusement.
By early 1985, eight years after the Lucona sank, the net began to close. Police arrested Proksch and Daimler. Two days later, Leopold Gratz, by then foreign minister, got them freed. Among other things, Leopold Gratz produced a paper that he said came from a Romanian state trading company, showing it had delivered a uranium processing plant to a Swiss company, which sold it to Proksch, just as Proksch had claimed. Unfortunately, for Udo Proksch it looked like a crude forgery. The evidence from Romania surprised everyone, Udo explained that he wanted to keep the origin of the goods he shipped secret. That was the way things were done in the international equipment business. As a German magazine put it, that business involves deals in the millions that whirl through a carousel of middlemen; briefcases full of banknotes, which are shifted from continent to continent as “useful payments”. Translation; bribes, much paper and few facts, an impenetrable wall of pretences. Proksch had set up a chain of shell companies where the order for his uranium mill was placed by one of his confederates. Leopold Gratz also had sent his best wishes to Proksch in jail in a letter on foreign ministry stationery. Gratz`s ties with Proksch hurt him politically. So did the revelation that the Romanian document was a forgery. Leopold Gratz expected to be the Socialist candidate for president in 1986, but the Proksch case sank him. The nonentity who replaced him was no match for the Conservative candidate, Kurt Waldheim.
The Bundeslander scandal also broke at about this time. Two Bundeslander executives killed themselves, and another went to jail. The Conservatives, who were tied to Bundeslander, were suddenly diverted from their pursuit of the Socialists, who were tied to Proksch.
In 1984, the judge handling the investigation complained that his hands were tied. Every application for an official preliminary investigation was rejected by the minister of justice, a friend of Udo Proksch, who said in a TV interview that “the soup is too thin for that”. In July of that year, the judge asserted his bold independence and had Proksch’s and Daimler’s premises searched. Authorities seized hundreds of documents. Subsequently, the judge’s actions were blocked by Interior Secretary Karl Blecha, who sent a Teletype message to the police to put away, immediately, all inquiries into the Proksch case. The judicial establishment complained loudly, and Karl Blecha was forced to cancel his order the same day.
On February 1, 1985, the case took a new turn. The judge issued an arrest warrant for Proksch and Daimler, on the grounds of the danger of flight and obstruction of justice. The reason; Proksch had told the court that he was going to Jakarta on business, yet never making the trip, a sign of evasiveness. The devoted employees at Demel’s marked the news of Udo’s arrest by hoisting a black flag over the entrance.
The judge became a hero to the Viennese public that was hungry for sensational news, about the case. With four police officers in tow, he stormed off to Salzburg to deliver the decisive evidence. A scrap dealer named Giinther Voglstätter, had testified several times that he had bought and scrapped the mining equipment that Proksch allegedly sunk on board the M/V Lucona. The judge threatened him with arrest if he; “did not finally tell the truth". The scrap dealer could tell no more than he already had. Back in Vienna, the disappointed judge found that Foreign Minister Leopold Gratz had hurried to the aid of his friend Udo, to whom he sent an encouraging letter in jail. “Keep your head up", the powerful statesman urged. The letter reached the court records and, shortly afterward, the press. The judge commented sarcastically, “The lawyers can take a look at the documents any time. A photocopy costs six schillings”.
Foreign Minister Leopold Gratz told
the press that he had visited Proksch’s storage shed at the Italian port of
Chioggia. A very convenient port for shipping goods from Austria. There he had
seen metal bars, piping, machine parts, and wooden crates, but couldn’t identify
any of the equipment. The chief prosecutor read this tidbit in the morning paper
and summoned Leopold Gratz for questioning. The foreign minister’s testimony on
the stand was evasive and uninformative. The image below shows Udo Proksch,
left and Leopold Gratz, right.
The image below shows Udo Proksch, left and Leopold Gratz, right.
After acquiring the antiquated coal conveyor belt, he stored it in a junkyard that he maintained in a small Austrian town named Piesting. There it joined other items that Udo had collected, including a worn-out grain mill and parts of jet engines scrapped by the Austrian Air Force. Using a loan that the Austrian government had given him to build a marmalade factory in this rural community, he used the money to erect a high fence around the property. He brought in Italian labourers to do the work, not a popular move in xenophobic Austria. When the fence was complete and hid his property from prying eyes, he had the Italians scrape the rust off the old machinery and rejuvenate it with a new coat of paint. When he was ready, he had it packed into containers and wooden crates, loaded onto a fleet of trucks, and shipped off to the Port of Chioggia.
From the Port of Chioggia, it was loaded carefully onto the M/V Lucona, when the placement of each item was personally directed by Proksch himself. The ship's captain later testified that Proksch had been very careful to stow certain crates beside particular bulk heads. Together with Proksch was his good friend from the military, Major Johan Edelmaier, an explosives expert. Edelmaier had supplied Proksch with 250 pounds of surplus explosives for a training film that Proksch had made for the Austrian Army. Filmmaking being another of Proksch’s many ephemeral enterprises. It was later brought out that Edelmaier had furnished these explosives on the orders of another friend of Proksch, Defense Minister Karl von Lütgendorf, or “Lü” to his intimates. Proksch, a self-styled weapons nut, loved the military and thanks to his connections, he was allowed to ride as a passenger in combat aircraft and in tanks. Once, when drunk, he drove a tank down a civilian road and left it in the middle of a town. Udo was never without his “Boomer", a 9-millimeter pistol that he kept tucked in his waistband.
In 1976, Proksch entrusted Major Edelmaier to take care of loading the explosives onto the M/V Lucona by taking him to the Port of Chioggia and show him the ship. At the Italian border, the cargo had to clear customs, but thanks to a corrupt official, it escaped inspection. Finally, it was loaded aboard the M/V Lucona but apparently not weighed, it proved impossible afterward to establish its weight within 100 tons. Once loaded the cargo was insured for transportation but never checked by the insurance company.
Udo Proksch had another enemy besides the detective Guggenbichler; a fanatical right-wing journalist named Hans Pretterebner. For years, Pretterebner had painstakingly collected every possible bit of discreditable information on Proksch and at the end of 1987 he brought it all out in a carefully documented book titled "The Lucona Case". Despite its dry, academic style and heavy size, 672 pages, it was an instant best-seller. The publisher could barely keep up with the demand. The book and its revelations shook Austria’s political establishment to its foundations. The Socialists went out; the People’s Party came in. Leopold Gratz and Karl Blecha resigned in disgrace. Lü committed suicide. It became imperative for the government to move against Udo Proksch.
So far, both Leopold Gratz and the interior minister, Karl Blecha, have been forced to resign. The former defence minister, one of Proksch`s business partners, is dead, officially a suicide, possibly a murder. Six sailors are dead, killed by explosives planted by Proksch. Executives of one of Austria`s biggest insurance companies are dead or in jail. More resignations and arrests were expected. All this would be enough to shock the Viennese. But it comes on top of the disgrace of Androsch, the onetime golden boy of Austrian politics and, of course, the worldwide shaming of the nation`s president, Kurt Waldheim.
Again a warrant was issued for
Proksch’s arrest, but warned by his friends, Udo was able to mysteriously
disappear just before the police reached him. Eventually, Udo surfaced in Manila
under the protection of his friend and patron Imelda Marcos, whom he said was
also his business partner… and perhaps more. In Manila, Udo was treated by a
faith healer for various illnesses, a slipped disc, arthritis, and acute
alcoholism. He recovered sufficiently to grant interviews to Austrian reporters,
and make phone calls to friends and allies in Austria. As a German magazine
commented; the Austrian police had to take a great deal of trouble not to find
him. The image below shows Udo Proksch, left and Imelda Marcos,
The image below shows Udo Proksch, left and Imelda Marcos, right.
When Interpol picked up his trail, Udo moved again. He spent some time in Bremerton, Washington, where he acquired an American girlfriend of peculiar tastes. Among his belongings, when he was finally caught, were photos of her, naked, with her pet python crawling around her thighs. Udo had plenty of American money with him for expenses. But even in the small, peaceful community of Bremerton, he could not escape Interpol, which sent out an international warrant on him. The FBI telephoned Bremerton’s police chief to apply the warrant. The chief asked; “How do you spell Proksch? But Udo, under the assumed name of Peter Moss, slipped away again.
On the move, Udo passed through Hong Kong and then flew to Britain. There, at Heathrow Airport, he told the immigration inspector that he planned to spend a few days in Britain and then travel on to the United States. When he showed her his passport, which gave his name as Alfred Semrad, the alert inspector saw that it bore signs of tampering. The British authorities put the document under an ultraviolet light and discovered that the entry and departure stamps were forged, one with a wildly discrepant date. The signature had been altered. The passport photograph was 5 millimeters too small, and the raised seal on it was inaccurate. Udo, who practiced forgery as a hobby, had been too casual about this one. Later an Austrian police official sarcastically compared the forged seal to something a child would make with a carved potato stamp.
Proksch was held in the guardroom at Heathrow, for eight hours, while the British police conferred long distance with their Austrian counterparts, about what they should do with this person who was carrying a passport with irregularities and an enormous sum of undeclared money; $400,000 in U.S. currency plus smaller amounts of Swedish, Japanese, Filipino, and Turkish money. From Austria came the information that Alfred Semrad had a criminal record with nineteen counts, though none was recent, Udo had not chosen the right person to impersonate. But he had done a lot of traveling as Alfred Semrad, because the passport bore legitimate stamps that showed he had been in France, Turkey, Spain and the Philippines. During this period, he had been accompanied by a long time girlfriend, Alexandra Colloredo-Mannfeld, a paediatrician.
The real Alfred Semrad was an odd-job man that worked for a tavern owner. Semrad told police that his passport had been stolen, probably at a pop concert where he moonlighted as a security guard, but he hadn’t noticed the loss until the day Proksch returned to Austria. He kept it in a folder full of papers; “in my little box". At age forty-eight, Semrad was seven years younger than Proksch, but he bore a slight resemblance to him.
In addition, to the large amount of money, a search of Proksch’s baggage revealed a collection of nude photos of women, some performing sex acts, also photos of Hitler and more important were pictures of prominent Austrian politicians. When the airport police on the Austrian side looked through the collection, they exclaimed; “Jeez! There’s Kreisky, (a former chancellor). Look! There’s your old boss!". Proksch asked the police to get rid of these “private photographs".
Udo Proksch was allowed to make a phone call from Heathrow. He called someone named Miller, who advised him to take the next plane to Vienna. Eventually, Proksch was put on a British Airways flight. His passport was taken away and entrusted to the chief steward of the British flight, to be handed over to the Austrian authorities. According to one account, the steward refused to do the task, so the passport was returned to Mr. Semrad, but he was escorted by guards onto the plane. On the flight, a bizarre encounter took place. A Viennese art dealer and a friend of Proksch, Evelyn Oswald, was returning from London and had nodded off when she was awakened by a hard poke. She looked up and saw a stranger with dark hair, a beard, and sunglasses. He shoved a boarding pass in front of her face. On the back, he had scrawled, “Hello love (the only part of the message written in English), the dogs are waiting for me. The purser has my passport. You must take my attaché case. Udo". As the stranger walked back to his seat, she observed his short stature, his gait, his movements, his custom-made orthopedic shoes. There was no doubt, it was Udo.
Udo Proksch passed his friend another note asking her to pick up his carry-on attaché case when the plane landed while he distracted the steward, adding, “It’s full of money and documents". Unable to decide between friendship and duty, she picked up his attaché case as instructed but left it on the floor of the shuttle bus, from the plane to the main airport building. A helpful stranger called out; “Madam, you’ve left your bag”. Subsequently, she handed it over to a customs agent, who broke it open with a screwdriver after she told him it belonged to Udo Proksch. Something strange must have happened along the way, for the Austrian police reported only $40,000 of the $400,000 that the British had discovered. The pornographic and political photos were also lost. Proksch almost managed to get himself lost. He disappeared into the transit hall and bought a ticket on the next flight to Nürnberg, safely across the border in Germany. The plane was due to leave at 5:05 pm. The police caught up with Proksch at 5:02 pm, but only because the bus from the waiting room to the plane was late. The airport police chief, who was a friend of Proksch’s and had enjoyed a yacht cruise with him, did not recognize the heavily disguised fugitive. He asked, “But you aren’t Mr. Semrad, are you?”, “No, I am Udo Proksch,” came the reply. Friendship apparently had its limits, for the police chief detained his old pal.
No wonder the police chief did not
recognize Udo Proksch. In Manila, Udo underwent plastic surgery, his prominent
nose was shortened, narrowed and the fat deposits were removed from inside his
cheeks, giving him a roguish, dimpled look. He grew a beard and moustache and
got a wig to disguise his bald head. Also, he had his eyebrows thickened by a
transplant and his eyelids darkened by tattooing. The image below shows Udo
Proksch accompanied by police, his face displaying surgery changes.
The image below shows Udo Proksch accompanied by police, his face displaying surgery changes.
The "Lucona Case" became a political minefield. With Udo now in custody, a new judge was in charge of the trial. His name was Hans Christian Leiningen Westerburg. He had a reputation as an eccentric; he rode a motorcycle to court instead of a sedan, was known to lecture defendants and break into impromptu speeches in the courtroom. He delighted himself to the press, however, by treating them to coffee and pastries in his chambers when trials got boring, they dubbed him “Rambo in the Robe".
The trial of Udo Proksch took eighty-six days. To work up various scenarios of a hypothetical explosion onboard the M/V Lucona, it took a month. There were witnesses and counter witnesses and changes in Proksch’s legal team. At one point, one of the state prosecutors, irritated beyond restraint, snarled at one of Proksch’s female lawyers; “Shut up with your idiotic cackling”.
Viennese society enjoyed the trial as the great entertainment of the season. The courtroom was usually crowded, even when the testimony was excruciatingly dull. Udo was prone to bizarre outbursts giving the proceedings a carnival-like atmosphere. Describing himself as a weapons nut, he pretended to fire an automatic rifle at one of the prosecutors, with accompanying sound effects. When asked what jet-engine fuel injectors were doing in his junkyard, he replied; “I collect hearses too". Proksch made contradictory statements and concocted colourful lies about his exploits as a mercenary soldier. He expressed his opinions of his ex-wives, declaring that he would rather sit at home face to face with a monkey. Now and then his defence lawyers had to scold him into proper courtroom behaviour. He rambled on about trips he had taken, the short stature of many of his business associates and he made a dramatic claim that he had a taste of the next life.
Proksch’s defense team came up with imaginative suggestions to explain the M/V Lucona disaster. One was that the ship had never sunk, but had been captured by pirates and now, slightly disguised, was sailing the waters of the Far East under a different name. From the 1980's on, amid a resurgence in piracy, this would have been a possibility, but in 1977, when the M/V Lucona sank, it was improbable. A more realistic defence was that the M/V Lucona had struck a floating wreck beneath the surface, invisible but as deadly as a reef.
A parade of witnesses testified in the Vienna courtroom. A mechanical engineer stated that more than 80 percent of the essential parts of Proksch’s alleged uranium-processing mill were missing. Proksch replied that it was indeed not a complete assemblage, only bait for bigger deals to come later. The bookkeeper at one of Proksch’s firms told the court that all she did was sign papers without checking them. Udo himself, apparently handled all the money transactions. She said she had only heard about the uranium mill from the newspapers. A carpenter said that he had built sixteen crates for the machinery but could not say what was put into them.
Proksch had claimed that the uranium-processing machinery came from Romania by forty trucks. He was forced to admit that he had used forged papers for the freight, because he had to have something to show the insurance company. But he could not produce any documents because of the strict secrecy of his deal, he said. A champion parachute jumper named Johan Huber, who had been Proksch’s all-around gofer and worked at the junkyard in Piesting, testified that every day he would unbar the entrance to the yard, let the workers go in and out, make purchases, and blindly sign receipts for the alleged shipments of machinery; “because Mr. Udo asked me to".
Major Edelmaier, unhappy to have been dragged into the proceedings, testified that he had placed a “mere” 880 pounds of explosives at Proksch’s disposal for making the training film but then said that he had actually handed over only 44 pounds, which Proksch had returned unused. As for the detonators found at the junkyard in Piesting, they were no proof of anything, said Edelmaier, for they lay by the hundreds on the ground at the military shooting ranges and could easily have been brought to Piesting.
Detailed references about blowing up the M/V Lucona were found in Edelmaier’s possession. He said he had prepared them on the advice of his attorney, years after the explosion to test the accuracy of the accusations against Proksch and himself. That was also the reason he stated for his interest in the workings of video recorders, whose timers could be programmed weeks in advance, making them convenient detonators. He denied ever having seen or been on the ship. The survivors of the sinking were then called to the stand. Time had dealt harshly with them: three had died in the thirteen years since the sinking, and the captain and his wife were now divorced. The ex-couple and the surviving mate were all Dutch, which meant that a translator was needed. Each testified in turn. They all agreed that Proksch had definitely been in Chioggia, that he had supervised the loading of the cargo, and that he had made a point of its exact placement. He had insisted on positioning an especially large wooden crate beside each bulkhead. The captain and mate also described a pair of yellow-painted steel cylinders, each about 16 feet long and 10 feet thick, about whose placement the otherwise genial Proksch became testy and demanding.
The captain testified last. After he finished, the three witnesses, together with the jury, watched a simulation of the explosion that the prosecution had created using a ship model. Three variations were shown, with the explosion in the stern, in the bow, and amidships. Then came the grand finale: an explosion with the charges placed at the tops of the bulkheads, which caused the hatch covers to fly into the air, precisely what the survivors had experienced. After the last scenario, the captain’s wife exclaimed; “That was it exactly”.
The captain, who had been sleeping in his cabin at the time of the explosion, described how he had only his underpants and wrist-watch on when the blast occurred. The shock threw him out of bed, which was filled with brown smoke. When he peered out at the deck railing, normally 30 feet above the water, he saw that it was even with the Ocean surface. He tried to escape, but his foot got caught on the railing. Though he managed to break loose, he injured his leg severely. Finally clear of the deck railing, the captain found himself in the water and beside a life raft. But the raft was tied to the sinking ship by its painter; “I thought, I am going down a second time if I don’t cut this line", the captain recalled, "There was an emergency knife on it, I pull it out, and it is kaput. The ship was already below water level and was pulling the raft down. Then, fortunately, the rope broke". In the water, he lost his underpants and was wearing only his Rolex when picked up, together with the other survivors, by a Turkish tanker named Sapem I, ten hours later. While onboard the Tanker, he had to borrow underwear from one of the Turkish engine-room crew.
The three Dutch mariners also testified of Proksch’s out-of-the-ordinary request for advance calculations of the approximate positions of the ship at various speeds. Proksch obviously wanted to know where and when the ship would be at the right spot for sinking. He also demanded radio reports of the Lucona’s exact position each day. The survivors also called attention to Proksch’s inexplicable directions to slow down the ship from the second day on, which, in their opinion, ensured that the programmed explosion would take place in deep water.
court heard from the explosives experts, with their computer models and
calculations of how much explosive it would take to sink a ship. They said 110
pounds, but that figure was based on arbitrary assumptions. It was possible to
sink a ship with 110 pounds of explosive, but whether it really did happen that
way on the M/V Lucona the experts could say only if they examined the ship. A
discussion of seventeen types of explosives and their characteristics followed.
The expert witnesses all agreed that the kind of explosion that sank the M/V
Lucona required professional expertise. Only 150 people in the Austrian Army had
such expertise, among them Major Edelmaier. The
underwater image below, shows the under deck frames of the ship ripped apart
from the explosion.
The underwater image below, shows the under deck frames of the ship ripped apart from the explosion.
How was the explosion set off? A radio signal was excluded, because it required an antenna on the ship, and the M/V Lucona had none. Did one of the crew do it? Improbable. Chemical and mechanical detonators were, for various reasons, excluded as extremely improbable. That left only detonation by an electronic clock, but the only proof of this theory was recent testimony in a concurrent case against Edelmaier, in which a soldier claimed that the major was known to have taken an interest in timers of video recorders. The experts dryly declared that such clocks did not exist at the time of the Lucona’s sinking. The defence objected that none of the survivors had originally testified to having heard an explosion. Another expert said that the lack of auditory proof did not mean there was not one; the noise could have been muffled by the weight of cargo on top of it, which would have been necessary to guide the force of the explosion.
The defence lawyers, hoping that it would be impossible to find and photograph the wreck of the M/V Lucona in the great depths of the Indian Ocean, repeatedly pressed for a search expedition. In the end, Judge Leiningen decreed that the sunken M/V Lucona had to be found and photographed to decide the case. An American firm, Eastport, now a part of Oceaneering Inc., was selected to do the job and appointed as the court’s expert witness.
After several months of
preparations, Eastport shipped two ROVs and their ancillary equipment to
Singapore in early December 1, 1990. One of the ROVs, Explorer 6000, had a depth
capability of 20,000 feet, the other, Magellan 725, could handle depths down to
25,000 feet. Once in Singapore, they were installed aboard the Valiant Service,
an aging 165 foot supply vessel normally
used for offshore oil operations. Judge Leiningen, who flew out to join the expedition in January, remarked that Proksch’s prison cell was larger and more comfortable than his quarters on the Valiant Service. Accompanying Judge Leiningen were two explosives experts from the Austrian Army and a naval architect to view the evidence with their own eyes.
The search area was about 200 nautical miles northwest of Malé, the capital of the Maldives Islands, located off the south western tip of India. No reporters accompanied the ship, but daily progress reports were sent to Austria by satellite. For a while, the news was mainly about the rather unappetizing diet of tuna casserole and the dwindling supplies of German beer onboard. According to the Austrian magazine Profil, the judge had counted on combining his investigative journey with swimming and snorkelling and perhaps an outing to picturesque Malé. He had to shelve those plans, for this trip was strictly business; the Austrian authorities in Singapore eliminated all possibilities of combining pleasure with work by requiring a strict accounting of all expenses of money and time. Eastport had spent a good deal of time plotting a preliminary search area based on calculations provided by the captain of the Turkish Tanker that rescued the M/V Lucona survivors.
The captain of the Turkish tanker had been awakened at 1:00 am with news of six people floating in a life raft. He estimated the wind at the time, a gentle breeze, as no more than 0.5 to 1.5 miles an hour. Factoring in the current, which in that part of the Indian Ocean was pretty steady, the ten hours the survivors told him had elapsed since the explosion, and the position of a radio beacon on the tiny island of Minicoy, the expedition leader did a backward calculation to yield the approximate position of the sinking. The captain’s estimate gave Eastport a starting point. The search vessel arrived at its destination, 8degrees and 50minutes North, 70degrees and 30minutes East, on January 23, 1991, the fourteenth anniversary of the loss of the M/V Lucona. The search began the next day, January 24, 1991. The crew carefully lowered Explorer 6000, with its 20,000-foot depth capability, into the Indian Ocean. Towed at the end of a 33,000-foot cable and flown 350 feet above the bottom in order to give its sonars a broad picture of the bottom. A computer translated what the sonars captured into visual images, which were displayed on a monitor on board the mother ship. The sonars signals were recorded on two backup disks.
The ocean floor at that location is very volcanic and full of submerged peaks, so Eastport’s first task was to make a preliminary chart of the area. This was accomplished with a precision deep-ocean Fathometer linked to global positioning satellite (GPS) via the company’s integrated navigation system. The chart showed that the search area was relatively flat but with large changes in relief. Undersea mountains bordered the area from its north eastern to its south western ends. Mountains are bad news for sea-floor searches, for even an object as large as a ship can easily be hidden behind an outcrop of rock or in an undersea canyon.
The judge was fascinated by the technology of undersea search operations. He was impressed by the idea that a computer inside the tow could sort out the sonar echoes and transmit them instantly to the big computer onboard the mother ship, where they would be stored on disk for repeated future reference. The sensitivity of the sonar ensemble, which could distinguish objects like hatch covers from other parts of the wreckage, was awesome. He spent hours watching the sonar images on the screen and peering through the eyes of the ROV's video camera. He listened, as Eastport’s equipment pilot instructed him in the subtleties of manoeuvring a towed sonar sled. If it is towed too slowly, it sinks, if towed too fast, it behaves like a kite in a stiff autumn wind and goes aquaplaning up toward the surface. Handling the cable was also a ticklish matter, it does not just tow the sonar sled but also contains all the control cables and glass fibre optics. And, although the cable contains so many vulnerable components, it is also the most heavily stressed part of the outfit.
After six days of scanning the sea floor with sonar, during which almost 430 square miles of bottom were covered, Explorer 6000 located a field of wreckage. Pieces of the hull corresponded roughly with the size of the M/V Lucona. The depth was approximately 14,800 feet, far deeper than any diver or most manned submersibles could go. At this depth, the pressure of the water is 6,437 pounds per square inch, or almost 3.5 tons. ROVs have opened up vast areas of the sea that were formerly unreachable, and the rugged Magellan 725 went into the water on February 5, 1991. The Magellan, able to operate at 25,000 feet of depth, where the pressure is nearly 11,000 pounds per square inch, was rigged for this dive with two manipulators, sonar, color and SIT zoom for close-up views, and black-and-white cameras. An optical fibre system transmitted the data from the sonar and cameras to the computer on the ship.
As Magellan 725
flew slowly over a field of light debris, it encountered the stern of the wreck.
It was sitting almost upright, heeling over slightly to the right. The force of
its fall to the sea floor had buried it to the main deck level in the soft
sediment. As one observer wrote, waves of mud radiated out from the mutilated
ship as though it were sailing across the sea floor. The mud also hid the name
of the ship, so its identity could not at first be established.
Excitement mounted as the data from the ROV began to come in. Would the images show that the hull was bent inward, indicating a torpedo or an external bomb, or would the hull plating be bent outward, indicating an explosion inside? Was the ship even the M/V Lucona, or was it some other wreck? The images, gathered over eight days on site, were clear and conclusive. The force of the explosion had almost destroyed the forward section of the ship. The heavy steel plates of the hull lay in shreds. The forecastle and chain locker had been blown nearly 650 feet away from the rest of the wreckage, the length of two football fields and more. The damage was found to be most severe in the area where Proksch had insisted his cargo be placed.
Unfortunately for Proksch, his cargo containers and their contents survived the blast. Videotape and still photos clearly showed his cargo code number, XB 19, and the name of his Swiss front company, Zapata. The contents turned out to be the old coal-mining machinery and scrap iron, as the prosecution had maintained, plus a worn-out flour mill. According to some reports, Proksch’s cargo also included a machine for making plastic pipes and a laboratory model of a device for making electronic components.
The explosives experts also took great interest in the front surface of the nearly intact stern. The outward-bent deformation of the metal and its ragged edges showed that the hull had been sheared off where the midship cargo derricks were located, along the lines where the hull plates had been welded together. This damage could only have been accomplished by a massive internal explosive charge. Udo Proksch’s friend Major Edelmaier had done his work well. Yet one of the things that impressed Judge Leiningen most was the view of a carton of cigarettes in the wreckage, intact despite the massive damage caused by the explosion and fourteen years on the sea floor.
Judge Leiningen returned to Vienna
with a thick bundle of still and video photographs. The jury had no difficulty
convicting the well-connected Udo Proksch of insurance fraud and the murder of
six people. He was sentenced to twenty years in prison and also was forced to
repay the costs of the undersea search and documentation. When the sentence was
read, the outraged Proksch shouted, “Heil, Hitler!” implying that he had been
convicted by a court of Nazis. A year later, after much public outrage, his
sentence was changed to life imprisonment. The underwater image below shows
the port side of the M/S Steinberg/Lucona and the two portholes belonging to the
crew's mess. Three more portholes follow to the left, where one of them was my
The underwater image below shows the port side of the M/S Steinberg/Lucona and the two portholes belonging to the crew's mess. Three more portholes follow to the left, where one of them was my cabin porthole.
In 2001, Udo Proksch died in a prison hospital after a heart operation at the age of sixty-seven. Unbelievably, he still had admirers who posted eulogies to him on the Internet.
In an unexpected outcome of the trial, Major Edelmaier was cleared of the charges against him, perhaps because he had acted on the orders of his superior, Defence Minister Karl von Lütgendorf, yet, he left the courtroom as former Major Edelmaier.
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