Deck hand drowns when tug sinks in Houston Ship Channel

One crewman was killed when his tugboat sank in the Houston Ship Channel and he became trapped in the engine room.

The U.S. Coast Guard is investigating what caused J.R. Nicholls to take on water and sink rapidly at 2230 on Feb. 10. The tug went down near the Sims Bayou turning basin, just off the LyondellBasell refinery docks.

Deck hand Steven Edward Seymore, 29, of Pasadena, Texas, was killed. Seymore had been painting in the engine room when the boat capsized.

Witnesses reported that prop wash from an adjacent vessel may have poured onto J.R. Nicholls, and the crew had trouble pumping the water off. J.R. Nicholls was already sitting low because it had just refueled.

“It sank fairly rapidly,†Capt. James Whitehead, deputy commander for Coast Guard Sector Houston-Galveston, said of J.R. Nicholls.

Local media reports said a wake from a ship also hobbled the tug, but Coast Guard spokesman Lt. j.g. Denny Ernster said this was not thought to have sunk the boat. The Coast Guard has not yet determined the cause.

“There’s plenty of blame to go around on this one,†said Dan Barton, a lawyer representing Seymore’s parents. “He was a 29-year-old man full of promise. It’s a shame.â€

Ernster said salvors found Seymore’s body inside the boat on the day after the sinking. A total of five crewmembers had been aboard.

“Two swam to shore, two were rescued by the crew of the UTV Mia Kelley and one (was) recovered from the vessel,†Ernster said.

At least one surviving crewmember was trapped underneath the capsized vessel for several minutes in an air pocket before finding a way to swim free, said Seymore’s brother, Ryan Hernandez.

“My brother was down in the engine room painting,†Hernandez said. “He probably had no idea until it capsized that there was something going on. I wish he was on deck, because he probably could have lived.â€

The cause of Seymore’s death was accidental drowning, according to the autopsy report from the Harris County Institute of Forensic Sciences. The autopsy also revealed evidence of blunt-force trauma: large cuts and bruises on his face, eye area, abdomen and both legs.

Hydrocone, a pain killer and cough suppressant often sold under the trade name Vicodin, was found in the victim’s blood and stomach, the coroner’s report said.

The other crewmembers were taken to Memorial Hermann Southeast Hospital, where they were treated for mild hypothermia.

Both tugs had just departed the Lyondell terminal, with J.R. Nicholls astern of the other vessel. J.R. Nicholls was outbound en route to the Rhodia chemical plant to pick up a tow when the accident happened, Ernster said. A rising tide was coming into the channel.

“Weather was cold with good visibility,†Ernster said.

The vessel was owned and operated by Houston-based Kinder Morgan Energy Partners LP. Joe Hollier, a spokesman for Kinder Morgan, said the company would not comment on the accident until all investigations were complete.

The captain of the port closed the upper stretch of the Houston Ship Channel to commercial traffic during the rescue, recovery and salvage operations. At least three towing vessels with fuel barges were delayed. About 1,000 gallons of diesel fuel spilled into the water, the Coast Guard said.

By Professional Mariner Staff