Mariner dies after injury aboard Great Lakes freighter

Richard Gray died after an accident aboard the Great Lakes freighter Walter J. McCarthy Jr. near Gary, Ind.
Richard Gray died after an accident aboard the Great Lakes freighter Walter J. McCarthy Jr. near Gary, Ind.
Richard Gray died after an accident aboard the Great Lakes freighter Walter J. McCarthy Jr. near Gary, Ind.

A Michigan man who worked as a second mate aboard the Great Lakes freighter Walter J. McCarthy Jr. died after an unspecified incident aboard the vessel. 

The victim has been identified as Richard Gray, 35, of Traverse City, Mich. 

Ship personnel notified the U.S. Coast Guard of the incident at about 1300 on Jan. 17, said Lt. Rachel Auld with Marine Safety Unit Chicago. She said the radio message received over VHF Channel 16 reported a crewmember was on the bow when he suffered a head injury. 

The 1,000-foot Walter J. McCarthy Jr. was underway and roughly one mile from Indiana Harbor in Gary, Ind., at the time of the radio call, she said.  

Multiple agencies are investigating the fatality, which limited what the Coast Guard could discuss publicly. The nature of the incident was among the details unavailable during the ongoing probe.

The ship underway off Duluth, Minn.
The ship underway off Duluth, Minn.

The U.S.-flagged bulk carrier is part of the American Steamship Co. fleet. The company did not respond to inquiries about the incident.

The Coast Guard conferred with a flight surgeon upon receiving the emergency radio call. The service ultimately determined shoreside emergency personnel could reach the ship faster than a Coast Guard helicopter crew. 

It is not clear if Gray was transported to the hospital or declared dead on the ship. The amount of time from the radio transmission to when emergency crews reached the ship was not available. 

“We lost our shipmate Richard Gray to a tragic accident aboard the McCarthy,” Jeff Markarian, a fellow mariner on the ship, wrote on Facebook on Jan. 19. “I was holding him in his final hours on board and I believe he knew his friend was with him.”

Markarian described Gray as one of his closest friends on the vessel and a regular workout partner. “He was one of the goofiest and kindest people I knew and made working out here much more enjoyable,” Markarian said.

Gray was a graduate of the Great Lakes Maritime Academy in Traverse City and was active in the International Ship Masters’ Association Grand Traverse Lodge 23, where he served as vice president.

News of Gray’s death ricocheted quickly across the Great Lakes maritime community, particularly on maritime-themed websites and social media forums. Numerous friends, classmates and fellow mariners offered words of condolence. 

“First and foremost, Richard was a doting father and husband who will be sorely missed by his wife and children,” Mark Mather, president of the International Ship Master’s Association Lodge 23, said in an email. 

“He had a very peculiar sense of humor, and absolutely loved puns — the worse they were the better,” Mather continued. “Richard got a lot of help to get through the academy.  He never forgot what it was like to be a cadet, so when he began working, he gave back by assisting cadets financially, and eventually by teaching classes there in the winter.”

Gray is survived by his wife and three young children, and his wife is expecting the couple’s fourth child in September, according to his obituary. His family described him as hardworking, supportive and “just a plain wonderful guy.”

“He was a lover beyond measure, a Pepsi-drinking geek and a true super fan to the Detroit Tigers. His signature dish was lasagna, and his quick-witted jokes would make a room erupt in laughter,” the obituary said. 

“He loved to learn, had a passion for reading and he never missed a moment to just show up and be present in your life and in your heart,” it continued. “He will be greatly missed by his family and friends.”

A fundraiser through the website GoFundMe raised nearly $100,000 for Gray’s family within two weeks of the incident. 

As of Feb. 1, the Coast Guard investigation was still in its early stages. The investigatory process is elevated when it involves the death of a credentialed mariner on the job, Auld explained. 

She said two Coast Guard investigators arrived at the ship on the evening of Jan. 17. They conducted interviews with fellow crewmembers and took photographs. It is not clear when the incident report will be completed.