Ship Docks in Houston with Body on Board

By Dale Lezon – Houston Chronicle

U.S. officials are investigating the death of a sailor whose body was found aboard a Ukranian cargo ship days before it docked at the Houston Ship Wednesday night.

The man, a Ukrainian national, was discovered dead New Year’s Eve while the cargo ship was at sea, said Shauna Dunlap, spokeswoman for the Federal Bureau of Investigation, which is handling the case.

The FBI is trying to determine how the man died, Dunlap said. No signs of a gunshot or stab wound appear on the body, she added. An autopsy will determine the cause of death.

Dunlap said the FBI was alerted about the death Wednesday night and that the ship later docked at the Port of Houston about 9 p.m. She said crew members told investigators they found the man dead.

Dunlap said the FBI also is trying to determine what law enforcement agency has jurisdiction in the case because the death occurred while the ship was in international waters.

The FBI has jurisdiction in U.S. waters.

Cruise-Ship Crewman Needs Medevac after Severe Injury

(SAN DIEGO) — A MH-60 Jayhawk helicopter crew from Coast Guard Sector San Diego medically evacuated a crewmember from a cruise ship 250 miles southwest of San Diego late Monday night.
Just after 2 p.m., the crew of the cruise ship Crystal Symphony notified the Coast Guard that the 39-year-old Filipino crewmember needed immediate medical assistance for an eye injury. A Coast Guard flight surgeon was consulted and recommended the crewmember be medically evacuated in order to preserve his eyesight.

At approximately 6:45 p.m., Monday, a helicopter was launched from Sector San Diego to conduct the medevac. An HC-130 Hercules aircraft crew from Air Station Sacramento supported the medevac by locating the ship and providing long-range coverage.

At 12:44 a.m, the helicopter crew hoisted the cruise ship’s crewmember, who was then flown to Scripps Memorial Hospital in La Jolla, Calif.

Serodino Denies Liability For Fatal Barge Accident

The Serodino barge firm has denied liability in a river accident that claimed the lives of two men.

Serodino filed suit in Federal Court asking for a ruling in a claim brought by the estate of Richard Wilkey, a Soddy Daisy native, who died along with Tim Spidle, of Elizabethton, Tn.

No claim has been filed by the Spidle estate.

The incident happened June 19 when the fishermen’s boat collided with a barge pushed by the M/V Bearcat tugboat at Possum Creek of Chickamauga Lake.

The suit says there was no fault or negligence on the part of the Chattanooga-based Serodino firm.

It asks that the court declare the value of the Bearcat not to exceed $1.1 million and its freight at the time not more than $11,615.

The Bearcat was involved in a similar deadly collision with a fishing boat on Watts Bar Lake on June 26, 2009, that claimed the life of Jones Bower Bare, 53, of Trap Hill, N.C.

A former pilot for the Serodino firm, in a separate federal suit, said the company was negligent in its river operations, causing the two accidents in which three people were killed in a 12-month time. 

Kelly O’Connor filed the “whistleblower” lawsuit. Saying he was fired for speaking out about alleged unsafe practices by the firm, he is asking back and forward pay as well as punitive damages.

Tugboat Barge Crash Shuts Down Houston Ship Channel

By Houston Chronicle

By Zain Shauk, Houston Chronicle

Houston Ship Channel Lawyer

A set of barges crashed into an electrical tower Sunday in the Port of Houston, prompting the U.S. Coast Guard to shut down most of the nation’s second-largest maritime shipping complex, possibly until Wednesday.

A towing vessel pushing three barges of scrap metal through the Houston Ship Channel about 6 a.m. hit a 300-foot-tall electrical tower, which carries lines across the artery, said Petty Officer Richard Brahm, a spokesman for the Coast Guard. No injuries were reported.

The crash happened at the narrowest point in the waterway, leaving three-fourths of the port’s terminals inaccessible.

“Maybe if it was wider we could have got boats around it, but it’s not, so it’s a logistical problem,” Brahm said. “It’s a bad place for it to happen.”

There was no risk of electricity-related injuries or effects to the power grid, which is owned by Houston-based CenterPoint Energy, because lines in the area were deactivated prior to the crash for maintenance work, said Penny Todd, a spokeswoman for the company.

CenterPoint was in the process Sunday of moving equipment needed to clear the steel tower and cables from the waterway — work the company expects will be completed Wednesday, she said.

The 25-mile-long port complex is a major economic engine for the region and in 2009 handled more waterborne tonnage than any port in the country, according to the Port of Houston Authority.

About 60 ships carrying $322 million in goods and resources — ranging from crude oil to finished products in containers — move through the port each day, said Chief Warrant Officer Lionel Bryant, a spokesman for the Coast Guard.

19 miles closed

Items shipped through the Port of Houston move to and from destinations in every state, which could mean delays for companies with vessels in the water.

Those ships will have to drop anchor and wait until the steel electrical tower, which was propped up by the barges after the accident, is removed.

At least eight ships were waiting in an anchoring area outside the port after the crash. Five others were waiting to leave.

The Coast Guard closed 19 miles out of the 54-mile-long ship channel, leaving more than 100 terminals — including those for oil giants Shell and Valero — cut off from the sea.

Further delays possible

The few accessible terminals are mostly for container ships and will not be usable by most companies that would need other infrastructure for loading and unloading or that had planned to arrive at terminals north of the crash site, said Tom Pace, presiding officer of Houston Ship Pilots, a labor association.

Three days of backups could result in further delays, even as traffic begins moving through the port again, Pace said.

“It’s going to take probably three days to get everything back to normal after that,” he said.

Crew members from the towing vessel, the T/V Safety Quest, were removed from the boat and tested for drugs and alcohol.

It was unclear how the accident occurred, but the tower’s location has long been known to ship pilots who work in the port, Pace said.

It was one of six towers in the channel, but was the closest to the preferred waterway for traffic.

“The one problem is the tower’s really close to the navigable channel,” Pace said. “That’s probably one of the reasons it had happened.”

Staff writer Sarah Raslan contributed to this report.

Platform Owner Involved in Previous Offshore Accidents Regulators Say

Houston-based Mariner Energy paid $55,000 in fines this summer after inspectors found safety violations. Four of the company’s accidents resulted in worker injuries, records show.

By Julie Cart and P.J. Huffstutter, Los Angeles Times

Mariner Energy, which owns the platform that erupted in flames Thursday, has been involved in more than a dozen offshore accidents in the Gulf of Mexico in the last four years, including at least four fires and a well blowout, according to federal regulators.

In one of those accidents aboard the oil and gas platform known as Vermilion Block 380, which seriously injured a worker in 2008, federal inspectors highlighted “unsafe workmanlike operations,” according to federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement records.

This summer, the Houston-based Mariner paid $55,000 in fines stemming from inspections that turned up various safety violations. Four of Mariner’s accidents resulted in worker injuries; two of them involved fires, according to federal records.

Still, the company’s safety record does not rank it among the gulf’s worst operators, but underscores the inherent dangers of offshore energy prospecting and production: The tiniest spark can result in a catastrophic fire or explosion.

For example, a Mariner production platform caught fire in June 2009 after a methanol tank exploded during a welding operation. A fire on another Mariner platform broke out the year before during a routine cleaning operation.

The production platform involved in Thursday’s fire was set in about 340 feet of water about 102 miles off Louisiana. On average, it produced about 9 million cubic feet of natural gas, and 1,400 barrels of oil and condensate a day, according to the company.

Mariner Energy is considered to be a small- to mid-sized independent offshore exploration and production firm, but one that was growing rapidly in recent years and showed a lot of promise, said Bruce Bullock, director of the Maguire Energy Institute at Southern Methodist University.

“They’ve had a fair amount of success, particularly in the deep water in the gulf,” Bullock said.

That success came after Mariner clawed its way back from the brink of dissolution in the early 2000s, when former energy giant Enron owned 96% of the Houston-based firm. A group of private equity investors bought it out of the Enron bankruptcy in 2004.

Two years later, using a complicated transaction and bolstered by Gulf of Mexico assets acquired from rival Forest Oil Corp., Mariner went public.

Towboat Captain Faces Criminal Charges in Fatal Barge Explosion

By Dom Yanchunas – Professional Mariner, Navigator Publishing
In yet another case of criminalizing a maritime accident, a federal grand jury has indicted an Illinois towboat captain and his family’s business on negligence charges as a result of a fatal 2005 barge explosion.

Dennis Michael Egan, 32, of Topeka, Ill., was charged with one count of negligence by a ship officer in the death of a crewman. He was charged with one count of causing oil to pollute a navigable waterway. His uncle’s company, Egan Marine Corp., faces similar charges.

The accident involving the pushboat Lisa E and its fuel barge, EMC-423, happened Jan. 19, 2005, in the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal. The U.S. Justice Department said the barge was fully loaded with 600,000 gallons of clarified slurry oil when it exploded. Deck hand Alexander Oliva, 29, was killed.

“Egan Marine Corp. and its employees negligently vented combustible vapors from the cargo hold of the barge to the deck of the vessel, causing an explosion hazard,” U.S. Attorney Patrick J. Fitzgerald said in a press release. “At the alleged direction of Egan Marine, Oliva was using a propane-fueled open flame from a handheld ‘rosebud torch’ to heat a cargo pump on the barge deck.”

Dennis Michael Egan and Egan Marine, owned by an uncle also named Dennis Egan, pleaded not guilty in February. The company’s defense attorney, Steven Fritzshall, denies that a torch was used. He blames the ExxonMobil Oil Co. refinery in Joliet, Ill., for loading the oil in a hazardous state.

“They picked up a hot load that wasn’t weathered properly,” Fritzshall told Professional Mariner. “They basically put a bomb on our boat. … If ExxonMobil had told us they had a problem — that they could not weather it properly — we could have just put it on our barges and opened up our hatches and weathered it ourselves. The fix was easy if they had just been honest with us.”

ExxonMobil spokesman Kevin Allexon wouldn’t comment, citing pending litigation. Both Egans also declined to be interviewed.

The elder Dennis Egan and the defense attorneys are disappointed that Dennis Michael Egan faces criminal charges. They believe the captain acted heroically in landing the burning barge and trying to locate Oliva, whose body was found in the canal two weeks later.

“It was pure chaos when it went up (in flames), and in the spirit of a captain, he stayed with the ship,” Fritzshall said. “There were flames and all sorts of smoke and everything, and instead of cutting and chasing, he stayed with the barge and tried to find his man at great risk to himself. He acted honorably.”

Egan Marine is a defendant in a National Pollution Fund Center civil case that will determine who should pay for the $1.5 million environmental cleanup, said attorney David Sump, a former U.S. Coast Guard officer who represents the company.

Dennis Egan faces charges under the 19th century Seaman’s Manslaughter Statute and the Clean Water Act. Sump noted that U.S. mariners can face criminal charges for lower levels of negligence than almost anyone else.

“Certainly it places mariners in a position of risk that is not shared by others in similar industries,” Sump said. “There needs to be a high degree of prosecutorial discretion in these cases. It heightens the need that the prosecution very delicately and sparingly uses these statues. You really need to see gross negligence or willful misconduct.”

Assistant U.S. Attorney Timothy Chapman said the accusations likely would qualify as gross negligence “to the extent we would need to prove gross negligence, which we don’t.”

The government needs only to prove there was mariner “misconduct or inattention to duty or violation of the law,” Chapman said. “This case involves all three. The use of an open flame on the barge violates the regulations. So that’s misconduct — or a violation of the law.”

The Egan indictment is the latest case in which mariners were charged criminally for accidents. After a 2006 fatality in Mobile, Ala., involving the ship Zim Mexico III, the vessel’s German captain spent four months in jail before he was convicted of negligence. The judge sentenced the captain to time served and released him.

The bar pilot in the Cosco Busan oil-spill disaster in 2007 was sentenced to 10 months in prison. In South Korea, two Indian ship officers received prison sentences in the 2007 Hebei Spirit spill case.

Anytime a maritime casualty results in serious injury or a fuel spill, the vessel officers should contact a lawyer immediately — even in the midst of the emergency response, Sump said. This approach can conflict with mariners’ natural desires to help others and learn from mistakes.

“This creates problems because the Coast Guard wants you to cooperate with the salvaging of the vessel and the cleaning of the oil,” Sump said. “When the Coast Guard and other law-enforcement folks start asking ‘how’ questions — how did this happen? — then you have to stop and say, ‘Hey, I’ll tell you what kind of oil and how much, but I’m not going to answer any questions about how it happened.’”

If convicted, the 32-year-old captain of Lisa E could be sent to prison for as long as 10 years and be required to pay a fine of as much as $250,000. On the oil pollution count, he could face a year in prison and a $100,000 fine. Egan Marine would pay larger fines.

Louisiana Oil Drilling Platform Explosion and Fire

The ultra-deepwater, semi-submersible rig Deepwater Horizon is shown operating in the U.S. Gulf of Mexico. It is operated by Houston-based Transocean Ltd.

At least 11 people were missing and seven injured after an explosion and fire at an oil drilling platform off the coast of Louisiana, the Coast Guard said Wednesday.

Most of the 126 people were believed to have escaped safely after the explosion at about 10 p.m. Tuesday, Coast Guard Chief Petty Officer Mike O’Berry said. It happened about 52 miles southeast of Venice on Louisiana’s tip.

The rig was still burning Wednesday morning and was listing about 10 degrees, O’Berry said.

“It’s burning pretty good and there’s no estimate on when the fire will be put out,” O’Berry said.

O’Berry said there were conflicting reports coming in but at least 11 — and possibly as many as 15 — were missing.

“We’re hoping everyone’s in a life raft,” he said.

Seven workers were airlifted to a Naval air station near New Orleans, then taken to hospitals. He said two of the seven were taken to a trauma center in Mobile, Ala., where there is a burn unit.

O’Berry said many workers who escaped the rig were being brought to land on a workboat while authorities searched the Gulf of Mexico for any signs of lifeboats.

The rig, Deepwater Horizon, was drilling but was not in production, according to Greg Panegos, spokesman for its owner, Transocean Ltd., in Houston. The rig was under contract to BP.

Houston Tug Accident Kills One, Closes Channel

Four miles of the Houston Ship Channel will remain closed until the 56-foot tug J.R. Nichols, which sank Wednesday evening, can be removed. Five seafarers were aboard the tug when it sank. Four were rescued; one man lost his life.

U.S. Coast Guard Lt. Robert Cole said this morning that two or three tow vessels with fuel barges could not get underway due to the closure but that movements of larger vessels had not been affected.

T.J. Nelson, business manager for the Houston Pilots Association, also said that the closure has had a minimal impact on vessel movements because it affects only the uppermost reaches of the ship channel.

The 56-foot tug sank in the Houston Ship Channel near the Sims Bayou Turning Basin on Wednesday night, closing the waterway from the dock at Vopak in Galena Park to Sims Bayou, an upper stretch of the ship channel near the 610 bridge, Cole said.

Of the five seafarers aboard the tug at the time of the accident, four were rescued by workers at a refinery near the site, the Coast Guard said. One seafarer could not be found; his body was recovered on Thursday afternoon by TNT salvage divers. His name has not yet been released.

The Coast Guard said that it will not be able to determine what caused the sinking until after the tugboat has been raised. The tug had 10,000 gallons of diesel fuel aboard. At least 1,000 gallons of that were spilled in the ship channel.

According to Niels Lyngso, director of maritime affairs with the West Gulf Maritime Association, skimmers are on the scene and the spill has been boomed off and largely contained as of Friday morning. The Coast Guard said that an attempt to lift the tug will be made Friday. TNT Salvage will use the crane barge Curtis T to rig the tug for lifting and then the heavy-lift crane barge Big John for the lift itself. After the tug is secured on the barge the Coast Guard will survey for pollution prior to allowing vessel traffic in the area.

Compensation for Injured Fishermen

The fishing industry is notorious for having some of the most dangerous jobs in the country. Working on a fishing boat can be dangerous, as fishermen often work in severe weather and on vessels that have slippery surfaces. Recently, a fishing boat sank off the shore of New Jersey, leaving many fishermen lost at sea.

The fishing boat accident near New Jersey added to the hundreds of deaths among fishermen across the country. In 1991, the Andrea Gaildisappeared on its journey home to Gloucester, taking the lives of six fishermen. In 2001, the Arctic Rose sank in the Bering Sea, claiming the lives of 15 fishermen.

Commercial fishermen are protected under the law and can pursue compensation when they suffer injuries. An injured fisherman has certain legal rights under the Jones Act and is entitled to seek damages when injuries are caused by negligence or an unseaworthy vessel.

A Jones Act lawsuit can result in compensation for pain and suffering, past and future lost wages, disfigurement, mental anguish and other costs associated with the injury. In some cases, negligence by a third party, such as a contractor, is to blame for the fishing boat accident, which can lead to a third party claim.

If you have been injured on a fishing boat, you should contact an experienced fishing boat accident lawyer. Contact our law firm as soon as possible, the initial consultation is free and confidential.

5 Killed in Louisiana Barge – Boat Crash

Three Houston-area men and two Louisiana residents were found dead early Thursday after their fishing boat slammed into a barge along a canal southwest of New Orleans, authorities said.

The fishing boat was found about 9:15 a.m. partially jutting out from below a barge that was moored along Falgout Canal near Houma, authorities said.

“You still had a portion of it that was underneath the (forward edge) of the barge,” said Maj. Euia Usie, with the Terrebonne Parish Sheriff’s Office.

At least one of the victims was found lying on the barge while the others were still inside the boat or in the water, Usie said.

“They were close together,” Usie said.

Sheriff’s officials identified the local victims as Rene Gauthier, 59, of Houston; Lawrence Flak, 54, of Conroe, and Katy resident William Voss, 49. The two Louisiana victims were Michael Carrere, 43, of Bayou Blue, and Carey Meche, 52, of Metairie.

Usie said his agency is assisting Louisiana’s Department of Wildlife and Fisheries in the investigation. He didn’t know how the victims were discovered.

Capt. Samuel Martin of Wildlife and Fisheries told the Houma Courier that workers tending to the barge found the men’s boat. The men, he said, likely died from injuries received upon impact. He said he was unsure whether the group wore life vests.

“Drowning was not the issue,” he told the Courier. “Trauma was the issue from them striking the metal barge.”

Terrebonne Parish Sheriff Vernon Bourgeois told WDSU-TV in New Orleans that the men were last seen around 10 p.m. Wednesday leaving the Dulac area on the way to Bayou Dularge.

Investigators don’t know how the 24-foot aluminum fishing boat with an outboard motor became pinned under the barge.

The men were planning to attend the Houma Oilman’s Fishing Invitational, officials said.

“All these gentlemen are oil-field employees that have been coming to the tournament for several years,” Usie said.

Officials said a steady stream of cars passes along a road running near the canal.

“You really couldn’t see it too much from the road because of the way the barges were placed,” Usie said.

He said there is a “fair amount” of boating traffic along the canal.

“We have a lot of people that fish down here for a living and they use it,” Usie said.