An experienced boatswain from the Philippines was presumed dead after he fell off a tanker while preparing a ladder for a pilot embarkation near New York Harbor.
Overseas Shipholding Group Inc. (OSG) and the U.S. Coast Guard were investigating why the sailor’s self-inflating life vest failed to inflate when he hit the water. The 46-year-old man was last seen waving his arms toward his crewmates. His body was never found.
The Aug. 5 accident on Overseas Altamar happened at 0955 in the Atlantic Ocean about 20 miles south of Ambrose Channel. Coast Guard investigator Lt. Marie Castillo-Bletso said a pilot and a Coast Guard inspector were about to board the 600-foot tanker.
The boatswain was in the process of pulling up handrails for a starboard boarding when he slipped or lost his balance. “They were working over the side to prepare the accommodation ladder when he fell,” Castillo-Bletso said. “The handrails on the accommodation ladder are stowed flat. The handrails are pointing straight up when you set it up for people to come aboard. When he pulled the line, from the eyewitness reports, he lost his footing and he fell in.”
The boatswain and one other crewman were working in unison when the casualty happened, said Capt. Robert Johnston, senior vice president and head of shipping operations for OSG.
“When the gangway was rigged, the boatswain went down the gangway to pull the handrails up,” Johnston said. “The boatswain was at the bottom. The ordinary seaman was at the top. They did the inboard rail first. Then they turned around and went to pull in the outboard rail. That’s when he fell over the side.”
Witnesses reported that the boatswain plunged straight into the water and probably wasn’t struck by the ship. The Coast Guard said the crew threw him a life ring. Out of the total crew of 26, five to eight people saw him fall or saw him in the water.
“He was alive when he was seen in the water,” Castillo-Bletso said. “When the ship turned around, he was already gone.”
She said the rescue response was “extremely fast” because a Coast Guard boat was already there for the inspection rendezvous and a New York Police Department boat was nearby.
A 47-foot Coast Guard rescue boat from Station Sandy Hook, N.J., rushed to the area. Helicopters from the Coast Guard and the New York Police Department and Coast Guard cutters Ridley, Seneca and Chinook joined the search. Nassau County, N.Y., Police and the Air National Guard participated too.
Seas were just 2 to 3 feet with excellent visibility, the Coast Guard said. The water temperature was 73º. Johnston said the boatswain was a good swimmer.
The investigation revealed that the boatswain was wearing a floatation device, Castillo-Bletso said.
“He was wearing a self-inflating work life vest,” Johnston said. “We don’t know why it didn’t inflate.”
Johnston said the ship’s three self-inflating life vests — including the one the boatswain was wearing — passed an inspection in May 2007. Such vests are designed to inflate instantly when they strike the water. If automatic inflation fails, the person can pull tabs that will inflate it manually.
The bluish gray vests turn bright orange when they inflate. One indication that the boatswain’s vest never inflated is that the crew never saw the orange color when they spotted him in the ocean.
“The crew saw him astern of the ship, waving,” Johnston said.
The apparent drowning is the latest in a spate of fatalities related to pilot transfers. Between January 2006 and February 2007, four pilots and one pilot-boat operator were killed in U.S. waters. Those accidents prompted several pilot organizations to adopt stricter safety procedures and purchase more rescue gear.
Castillo-Bletso said the crew of the Marshall Islands-flagged Overseas Altamar apparently followed acceptable safety practices during the pilot-embarkation preparations.
“It’s always hazardous — any kind of ship-boarding operation,” Castillo-Bletso said. “They followed good procedures. He was wearing a life vest. They had an observer with a radio. They had all of these things in place. It’s just unfortunate — purely accidental.”