Boat operator killed in accident had lost license five years earlier due to drug test

A Galveston-Texas City Pilots launch operator who was killed when his boat capsized during a 2007 pilot exchange had lost his U.S. Coast Guard license five years earlier and should not have been operating such a vessel.

The Coast Guard said George Robert Frazier, 55, failed a drug test in 2002. Frazier surrendered his mariner’s license at the time and never took steps to regain the credential.

On Jan. 20, 2007, Frazier was killed and a pilot barely escaped with his life after their 58-foot vessel Galtex flipped over while alongside offshore support vessel MV Sanco Sea in the Gulf of Mexico. As a result of its investigation into the fatal casualty, the Coast Guard reprimanded an affiliate of the Galveston-Texas City Pilots Association for failing to conduct pre-employment and random drug tests for several years.

Frazier had failed a random drug test in 2002, according to the Coast Guard report, which Professional Mariner obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request. Frazier, who had worked for the pilots for about 12 years, illegally kept his job after the failed drug test.

To be eligible to resume working on pilot boats, Frazier would have needed confirmation from the pilot association’s medical review officer that he was drug-free.

“Frazier … was not allowed in a safety sensitive position until a MRO (Medical Review Officer) return to work determination was received,•bCrLf the Coast Guard report said. “Frazier never received that determination and was not permitted to be operating the Galtex.•bCrLf

The Coast Guard attributed the fatal accident to a rare suction effect between vessels in heavy seas that investigators could not fully explain. Frazier’s operation of his vessel was not faulted in the report.

Frazier was at the helm of Galtex as the pilot boat came up alongside the 168-foot support vessel to pick up a pilot descending from the ship.

Seas off Galveston were at 5 to 7 feet, with winds between 20 and 30 knots. Frazier requested a speed of 11 knots, and the Sanco Sea crew reported that their vessel was going about 10 knots.

Witnesses said waves had caused the vessels difficulty in their rendezvous. Sanco Sea maneuvered into a position whereby the south jetty in Galveston created a lee for Galtex.

Eventually, the launch successfully approached along the port side to the disembarkation gate, located near the stern.

The pilot stepped onto Galtex successfully, entered the aft end of the wheelhouse and latched the door behind him.

Then the unexpected happened. Frazier could not get Galtex to separate from Sanco Sea, according to testimony in the Coast Guard report.

The pilot said he witnessed Frazier “twin-screwing the throttles, using the helm and varying the engine speed. I could hear the Galtex‘s engines properly responding. These are normal procedures used by a pilot boat to bring his vessel away from the side of the ship.•bCrLf

Still, the launch “could not break the suction from the Sanco Sea,•bCrLf the pilot said.

“The stern of the Galtex began rising up while we were still alongside the ship,•bCrLf he continued. “It rose to a point where my feet started sliding out from underneath me due to the stern being raised. The starboard side of the Galtex remained stuck to the Sanco Sea, even as Galtex‘s stern was being raised. It looked to me that as the stern was going up … the Galtex starboard bow followed its natural curve and angled in toward the hull of the Sanco Sea.•bCrLf

Witnesses aboard Sanco Sea reported that Galtex‘s bow became submerged and water broke through the boat’s windows.

Galtex listed to port and capsized. “There was total darkness. I yelled (Frazier’s) name and he yelled mine,•bCrLf the pilot said. He never heard Frazier’s voice again, and he began what would be a 25-minute struggle to save his own life.

The boat filled with water almost immediately, leaving only a small air pocket barely large enough to stick his nose into. He became disoriented and debris was slamming into him.

“The air pocket I had used was gone in about 10 to 15 seconds,•bCrLf he said. “After struggling for a way out and realizing I was out of breath, I took a gulp of sea water, said my prayers and began to sink and drift away, thinking I would not survive, and it was better to die quickly.•bCrLf

Just then, though, the pilot found another air pocket. The sound of the engines ceased, and Frazier was nowhere to be found in the darkness. The pilot then noticed a red and green light that signified the galley, which in the vessel’s inverted position was above the bridge. He found yet another air pocket, but diesel burned his eyes and he continued to think he would die.

The pilot looked around one more time for Frazier, but could not locate him. As the boat settled lower, the pilot made a final bid to save his own life.

“I dove down towards the light and felt around it,•bCrLf he told the Coast Guard. “I believed it to be the escape hatch that leads from the galley roof onto the forward deck of the boat. I returned to my air pocket. I then realized that I’ve got to get myself through this hatch soon if I wanted to survive.•bCrLf

A life jacket floated by, and he grabbed it. Water was now rushing into – and out of – the hatch.

“I tried several times to get through the hatch feet first, but the water and current would not let me through,•bCrLf the pilot said. “I then dove down, grabbed the opening with my hands, put my head in the opening and worked my body through the hatch, and then floated up to the surface.•bCrLf

Out of harm’s way, the pilot watched Galtex sink. Sanco Sea was 50 yards away. Another pilot boat, Texas, arrived to snatch the exhausted, nauseated pilot out of the water and get him to a hospital.

Salvage divers recovered Frazier’s body inside the sunken boat the next day.

The Coast Guard investigators determined that Galtex was designed “with more than adequate stability to remain upright in the wind and the waves•bCrLf encountered that day.

After interviewing Sanco Sea officers and the pilot, the Coast Guard found no shiphandling faults. Investigators cited only “the effect of the environment on the vessel•bCrLf that caused suction.

“As the Galtex pulled away from the Sanco Sea after retrieving the pilot, a rare combination of hydrodynamic and/or mechanical interactions between the vessels likely caused or significantly contributed to this casualty,•bCrLf the investigators wrote.

The Coast Guard report said the estimated value of the vessel was $365,000. The official owner was Galtex Pilots Service Corp., a pilots association affiliate that manages its boatmen.

The report provided to Professional Mariner excluded several passages that were blackened out, due to privacy regulations. As a result, the exact substance that caused Frazier to fail his 2002 drug test was unclear. Drug and alcohol tests were conducted during his autopsy, and those results also were blacked out.

After auditing the pilots’ drug-testing practices in January 2007, the Coast Guard determined that Galtex Pilots Service Corp. had violated the law. The audit said the organization employed an individual who had failed a drug test and never was authorized to return to safety-sensitive work. The pilots also allegedly failed to conduct pre-employment and random drug-testing and failed to keep records of previous drug tests.

The pilots produced documents confirming only that drug-testing was done on two current employees, although the association employs 16 pilots and eight boatmen, the report said.

The Coast Guard reprimanded the pilots and the boatmen’s corporation by giving them a warning on all counts, with no monetary civil penalty. The association formally accepted the warning. In March 2007, the Coast Guard said an audit showed that the pilots had corrected the violations – with the exception of a requirement that they keep records of positive drug tests for five years.

Capt. Chris Gutierrez, president of the pilots association, declined to comment on the Coast Guard report, citing pending litigation.

Dom Yanchunas

By Professional Mariner Staff