HER RITUAL has been the same nearly every October for 30 years.
A few weeks from now, Lotte Zukier-Fredette, now 80, will step aboard the Cape May-Lewes ferry and ride for about 30 minutes out to sea.
Then she'll say a prayer, kiss the bouquet in her hand and drop 34 red roses into the water, one for her son Hans, and one each for the 33 other men who lost their lives when the S.S. Poet disappeared in 1980.
The ship, a former World War II troop carrier two football fields long, vanished without a trace soon after leaving Girard Point in South Philadelphia on Oct. 24, 1980. The official line is that the vessel, en route to Egypt with 13,500 tons of corn, went down in a storm.
Still, some feel that that conclusion, drawn after congressional hearings and a Coast Guard study, is too simple.
Maybe, they say, the Poet was hijacked by the South Jersey mob, something officials initially investigated.
Perhaps, a few others say, the Poet was on a government mission, delivering arms to Iran as part of a deal to free the 52 U.S. hostages held there for almost a year.
One thing that is known is that the Poet was the victim of a largely forgotten tragedy. The disappearance of hardworking men made big news in small neighborhoods for a short time, and then life moved on.
"Nobody knows the Poet," Zukier-Fredette said. "It was so many years ago and young people [today] in their 30s, 40s, 50s, they don't have the foggiest idea what happened to our boys, the 34 of them."
It's been three decades, but the pain is still so raw that some families declined to be interviewed for this article - because life doesn't always move on for those who mourn.
Barbara Schmidt, 76, of Kennett Square, choked up while talking about her 24-year-old son, Seaman Al Schmidt.
"It's 30 years, but it's still hard," Schmidt said, her voice catching. "I can't believe I still find it so difficult."
Zukier-Fredette said that grief is different when there's no body to cry over or final resting place to visit. She lost a second son in a hunting accident in 1983, another heartbreaking blow, but she can go to his grave in Northeast Philadelphia. She sings to him on his birthday there.
She has nowhere to remember her oldest son, who was 32 years old when he went to sea and never came home.
"I go to the beach and look out and know my son is somewhere beyond the horizon," she said. "It's a terrible thing when your child is lost and you don't know where he is."
Was it the grain?
The Poet was an old vessel, about 36 years old. After the ship disappeared, some questioned whether it had been properly maintained.
"She was on her last days, no question, but she was seaworthy," said David Heindel, who worked on the ship until July 1980. "I don't think the Coast Guard would have allowed us to sail if she wasn't seaworthy."
During Heindel's day, the Poet ran grain between the U.S. and Haiti. He believes that the cargo, combined with the storm, brought the ship down: Water got into the hold, causing the cargo to expand.
"My guess is the grain got wet and split the ship open and she just went straight down," Heindel said.
The Poet left Philadelphia about 1:30 p.m. Oct. 24. It was supposed to make a 16-day trip to Port Said.
At 9 p.m., the ship reported in to the Coast Guard near Cape Henlopen, Del. A few hours later, a crew member used the ship-to-shore radio to call his wife.
It was the last known communication anyone would have with the Poet.
The next night, a northward-moving storm stirred strong winds and high seas in the Poet's projected path. The National Weather Service forecast winds of 35 to 50 knots and seas 12 to 22 feet high.
The ship failed to check in with its owner, but the company did not report that failure until Nov. 3.
Family members had no idea that there was anything wrong for weeks, Barb Schmidt remembered.
"We didn't hear anything and you didn't expect to hear anything," she said. "It's not like today. You think, 'They're going over there to Egypt.' "
When someone from the Poet's parent company called the family to tell them that the ship was missing, Schmidt said she didn't believe it. A U.S. freighter hadn't been lost at sea in almost 20 years.
"I told the man he had the wrong phone number and then he said, 'Poet' and I couldn't grasp it," she said. "I said, 'Two days from now and this will all be settled.' "
On Nov. 8, the Coast Guard began a search for the Poet. Over a 10-day period, as many as seven planes scoured more than 290,000 square miles.
"They didn't find a life raft, a life ring, nothing," Heindel said. "That led to some of the conspiracy theories."
Was she hijacked?
In January 1981, South Jersey's Courier Post published a story saying that it had obtained classified cables between the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and New Scotland Yard, in London, suggesting that the Poet had been "hijacked to Iran" by South Jersey mobsters tied to the Gambino crime family in an underworld plot to swap corn for heroin.
The newspaper quoted one anonymous source as saying that the Iranians may have taken "the crew captive for some future leverage with the United States."
"I don't know if it was more stressful or not," Schmidt said, of having the whole issue reignited. "It just seemed so surreal."
The day after the article's publication, federal officials said there'd been "no foundation" to the tip from Scotland Yard.
But the Poet had been tied to Iran.
In 1989, former Reagan staffer Barbara Honegger mentioned the Poet in her book October Surprise: Did the Reagan-Bush Election Campaign Sabotage President Carter's Attempts to Free the American Hostages in Iran?
She cited a 1980 Reuters report stating that when the 52 hostages were released, Iran took 32 new U.S. hostages identified as "New Jersey heroin smugglers."
"Were these estimated thirty-two 'New Jersey heroin smugglers' taken hostage by Iran on or around January 20, 1981, the same as the estimated thirty-four men reported to have been on board The Poet, hijacked by the New Jersey Gambino clan?" Honegger wrote.
Zukier-Fredette believes the October Surprise theory. She believes that the ship made it to Iran and disappeared.
"How many ships were in the storm?" she said. "My son was in the merchant marines for 12 years. How many ships was he on?"
Schmidt believes that the Poet went down in treacherous seas.
"We do believe, and it took a while to sink in, that they went down in a bad storm," she said. "I don't think it was too far off the shore. The ocean is very vast and very treacherous, and I guess these things happen quickly. But I can't go there. I can't think about what could have transpired."
Honoring the dead
Memorial services to mark the 30th anniversary of the Poet's disappearance are scheduled in Mobile, Ala., and New Orleans later this month. Both cities lost sailors on the ship.
Schmidt and other Poet relatives will make a pilgrimage to Old Swedes Church, on Columbus Boulevard and Christian Street in Philadelphia, where a bronze plaque honoring the lost men hangs on an interior wall. The words "Pray for Us" top a list of the sailors' names, ages and home towns. Underneath is the message, "O God thy sea is so great and my boat is so small."
And Zukier-Fredette will make her ferry trip. In 30 years, she's missed only one anniversary.
"I'll do it as long as I can," she said. "God knows what happened to them. All I can do is go to the beach and pray and wonder, 'Hansy, where are you? Where are you?' "