A towboat captain has been convicted of seaman’s manslaughter in the death of a deck hand in an explosion aboard a petroleum barge in Chicago in 2005.
Dennis Michael Egan, 35, and his uncle’s business, Egan Marine, in June 2014 were found guilty in federal court of one count each of negligent manslaughter of a seaman and oil pollution of a navigable waterway.
Egan was the captain of the towboat Lisa E when its fuel barge EMC-423 exploded in the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal on Jan. 19, 2005. The deck hand, 29-year-old Alexander Oliva, was killed while using a propane torch on deck at the same time that other crew were venting vapors from the barge.
The fully laden tank barge contained 599,424 gallons of clarified slurry oil. U.S. District Judge James Zagel ruled that Egan, of Topeka, Ill., and Egan Marine, based in Lemont, Ill., were negligent because their work instructions to the crew created the hazardous condition.
The damaged remains of the fuel barge.
Photo courtesy Chicago Fire Department
The judge ruled that “Egan Marine and its employees negligently vented combustible vapors from the cargo hold of the barge to the deck of the vessel, causing an explosion hazard. Oliva was using a propane-fueled open flame from a handheld ‘rosebud torch’ to heat a cargo pump on the barge deck. … The use of an open flame to heat the pump near the vented vapors caused the explosion and, ultimately, Oliva’s death, the destruction of the barge and the oil pollution of the canal.”
Clarified slurry oil hardens in cold temperatures. The cargo pump must be heated in order to deliver the heavy oil at the terminal. The captain and company were negligent “in allowing the use of an open flame” on the deck of the tank barge, the U.S. Attorney’s Office said in a statement announcing the sentencing.
“Without question, it is against Coast Guard regulations (and) the standard of care, and is downright reckless, to employ the use of a propane torch on top of 600,000 gallons of a petroleum byproduct,” the U.S. Attorney stated in a closing argument brief.
The judge issued the ruling after 13 days of trial. Sentencing is scheduled for Sept. 24. Dennis Egan faces a maximum of 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine. Egan Marine may face up to five years’ probation and a $500,000 fine.
Dennis Egan’s defense lawyer, William Walters, declined to comment on the case prior to sentencing. Attorney Steven Fritzshall, who defended Egan Marine, also declined comment.