Hurricane-force winds blamed in fatal liftboat capsizing

SEACOR Power lost stability and capsized after encountering severe winds that exceeded its operational limits, the NTSB found.
SEACOR Power lost stability and capsized after encountering severe winds that exceeded its operational limits, the NTSB found.
SEACOR Power lost stability and capsized after encountering severe winds that exceeded its operational limits, the NTSB found.

The liftboat SEACOR Power cleared the jetties near Port Fourchon, La., on a stormy spring afternoon and entered the Gulf of Mexico. Seemingly out of nowhere, a series of squalls passed over the region that reduced visibility to zero.

Bryan Mires, the first mate helming the vessel, suggested dropping the spuds to ride out the weather. Capt. David Ledet agreed. Mires turned to port to put the bow into the seas then began lowering the legs.

Around this time, the vessel developed a pronounced starboard list as winds impacted the vessel from the port stern. Moments later, the cook reported seawater coming in through the galley door.

“I asked him to dog it tighter,” Mires told federal investigators in an interview eight days after the incident. “And then I looked back up at the list, and I said, ‘Dave, I think we’re going over.’”

Ledet took control and attempted to prevent the 233-foot vessel from capsizing. Moments later, Ledet issued an urgent call over the intercom for crewmembers to grab their life jackets. 

“Dave stayed at the wheel trying to correct, steer into it,” Mires recalled. “And then I grabbed the door, and that’s when we rolled.”

Mires last saw his captain falling through the wheelhouse windows into the sea.

SEACOR Power capsized onto its starboard side at about 1537 on April 13, 2021, roughly seven miles south of Port Fourchon with 11 crewmembers and eight offshore energy workers on board. Only six people survived.

“The capsizing occurred when SEACOR Power was struck by severe thunderstorm-generated winds that exceeded the vessel’s operational wind speed limits, causing a loss of stability,” the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) determined.

“Contributing to the loss of life on the vessel were the speed at which the vessel capsized and the angle at which it came to rest, which made egress difficult, and the high winds and seas in the aftermath of the capsizing, which hampered rescue efforts,” the agency continued.

The NTSB met on Oct. 18 to formally determine the probable cause of the incident. It released an executive summary of the board’s action that also contained key findings. As of Nov. 1, the final report on the incident was still not available. This article is based on the findings released in the executive summary.

Mires’ April 21, 2021, interview with investigators was among more than 1,000 documents the NTSB released as part of the investigation.

SEACOR Power left Port Fourchon at about 1330 for a Talos Energy platform in Main Pass, roughly 25 miles east of Port Fourchon. Mires told investigators crew heard thunder in the area after departing and expected 2- to 4-foot seas.

In the immediate aftermath of the incident, there was intense speculation that Ledet and other crewmembers felt compelled by SEACOR or Talos Energy to leave the dock despite adverse weather conditions. The NTSB found no evidence to support either claim.

“Commercial pressure,” the summary said, “was not a factor in the captain’s decision to get underway.”

The NTSB determined Ledet’s decision to get underway was reasonable based on the weather information available to the crew. A Coast Guard navigational telex site was out of service. As such, the vessel never received a National Weather Service Special Marine Warning notifying mariners of a severe storm system approaching the region.

Those thunderstorms were more intense than forecasts predicted. The storm created an unusual weather phenomenon known as a wake low that can generate hurricane-force winds. Instruments on SEACOR Power registered wind speeds of about 79 mph in the moments before the vessel capsized.

The NTSB recommended the National Weather Service modify its Louisiana weather radar to improve forecast accuracy over coastal waters.  

Mires, in his testimony to the NTSB, described a harrowing escape from the capsized SEACOR Power. He used the ceiling to pull himself toward the port-side door and then out onto the side of the pilothouse. He yelled to other crewmembers down below but got no response.

He grabbed a rescue transponder on his way out of the vessel and a life jacket floating nearby. “When I got the lifejacket, I put it on. Then I got washed, and I got back on. And I got washed off again, and I fought my way back on trying to stay with the boat,” he told investigators. “The third time I got washed off, there was a life ring. So, I grabbed it.”

Mires saw someone else standing on the side of the ship as he struggled in the surf. He yelled to the man but never got his attention.

He ultimately saw four vessels nearby and thought the transponder would bring them to his location. The first vessel, however, steered away without seeing him. Crew aboard the second vessel ultimately saved him.

“When I got closer to the boat, every time I got to the top of the wave, I would wave at them,” Mires said, initially unaware if they would see him in the worsening seas. “So, every time I would wave. And I could see the guys on the front of the boat and they finally waved at me.”

NTSB investigators determined the transponder he carried functioned as designed. High seas and his inability to hold the device above water hindered the unit’s effectiveness.

Mires was one of six people rescued after the capsizing. The Coast Guard recovered the bodies of six others who died. Seven others were never found and are presumed dead.

Sea conditions built to more than 10 feet soon after the vessel capsized, and first responders battled winds exceeding 30 knots. Even so, investigators said the Coast Guard Rescue Coordination Center failed to promptly verify the location of SEACOR Power’s emergency position indicating radio beacon (EPIRB) alerts. That, in turn, delayed response times for rescue crews.

SEACOR compounded those challenges by giving the Coast Guard inaccurate information about the ship’s location. The NTSB found SEACOR personnel lacked training to respond effectively when contacted by the Coast Guard about EPIRB alerts.

“High winds and heavy seas, combined with underwater and overhead obstructions, prevented both surface and air resources from getting close enough to the vessel to rescue personnel directly from the wreck, which contributed to the loss of life,” the executive summary said.

The NTSB reiterated its earlier recommendation that the Coast Guard require U.S. operators to provide their mariners with personal beacons “to enhance their chances of survival.”

The agency also recommended the Coast Guard find workarounds to notify mariners when its telex sites are not working, and require greater stability for newly built liftboats to better withstand strong winds.

SEACOR Marine, which operated the vessel, said it will carefully review the NTSB report as well as the agency’s recommendations. 

“We will always remember the 13 men who lost their lives on April 13, 2021,” the company said in a statement, “and our prayers continue to be with the families and loved ones of those lost.”