Body of missing deck hand found on Texas beach

Authorities have recovered the body of a deck hand who went missing from the tugboat Smith Invader in early February.

Thomas Phillips, 35, of Dulac, La., was last seen aboard the 5,000-hp tug at about 2200 on Feb. 5 while it was underway in the Gulf of Mexico, U.S. Coast Guard spokesman Ryan Dickinson said.  

Crewmembers reported Phillips missing at about 0600 the following morning, spurring a massive search that lasted almost a day.

“The tug informed the command center watchstanders that the crewmember complained about feeling ill prior to his disappearance,” Coast Guard spokesman Ryan Dickinson said. “A crew boat was scheduled to transport him off the vessel.”

The Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office, based in Beaumont, Texas, is leading a joint investigation into the incident with the Coast Guard.

Details about his disappearance are not known, including when and how Phillips went overboard. Smith Invader was not equipped with closed circuit cameras on its fore or aft decks that might have captured what happened.

“The missing crew member was reportedly not wearing a life jacket at the time of the incident,” Dickinson said. 

Smith Invader was supporting a dredging project when Phillips went missing. The tug was about a mile offshore from High Island, Texas, on Feb. 6 when crewmembers discovered he was not on board. 

The Coast Guard broadcast details about the missing mariner over radio soon afterward. The service dispatched a 29-foot response boat and an MH-65 helicopter to search for him. The effort lasted 23 hours and covered more than 200 square miles. 

“The tough decision of suspending a search is vetted through many channels and is never taken lightly,” Lt. Cmdr. Jeffrey Schwind, search and rescue mission coordinator, Sector Houston-Galveston, said in a statement. “We send our thoughts and prayers to the man’s friends and family during this tough time.”

Phillips’ body was ultimately found on Feb. 14 by a person walking on a remote second of beach near Port Arthur, Texas, according to Capt. Crystal Holmes with the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office. 

“A preliminary autopsy was conducted but there is no final report on the cause of death at this time,” Holmes said in an email. 

Phillips was described in an obituary as “an artist, dreamer and local philanthropist of his community.” A sibling said working on the water was like a second home for him. He is survived by a large group of friends and family in south Louisiana. 

Smith Marine Towing of Amelia, La., operated the 89-foot Smith Invader. The company did not respond to inquiries about the incident.