Ferry captain loses job after departing dock while cars still loading


At 1956 on Aug. 7, dispatchers in Jamestown, Va., received a series of 911 emergency calls from the local wharf, where car ferry Surry was in the midst of its last departure for the night. Stunned witnesses reported that a car had fallen off the boat’s ramp, and a 19-year-old woman was trapped inside.

“I’m at the ferry! I’m at the ferry! The boat took off and (a vehicle) fell into the water,” one caller stated. “What happened was she was going on the ramp and the boat started going forward. … Yes, she was driving onto the boat and the boat started to pull forward and she fell in between the boat and the ramp.”

The Jamestown-Scotland Ferry (JSF) boat had pulled away from the berth prematurely while vehicles were still loading. A blue Toyota Scion plunged into the James River. The sole occupant, Emma Fretts, initially could not escape and was pulled underwater, but eventually she was rescued.

Surry’s operator, the Virginia Department of Transportation, said the accident happened because the captain mistook a mate’s waving hand as an “all clear” signal and started moving the 190-foot boat away from the dock. As a result of the incident, the captain was suspended and eventually lost his job.

The bi-directional Surry has two wheelhouses — one on each end. In an investigative report, the Department of Transportation said the captain normally watches the loading and unloading of vehicles from the wheelhouse facing the dock and then walks to the other wheelhouse to get underway. When everyone is aboard, the dockside ramp is raised, gates on the deck are closed and the vehicles are secured with wheel chocks.

After that process is complete, the mate gives the extended-arm “all clear” wave, and the captain acknowledges the signal with his own extended-arm wave back to the mate. Only then should the captain proceed to the other wheelhouse, according to the report.

The state investigators wrote that the Surry captain “left the wheelhouse facing the dock prior to the completion of the loading process without receiving the ‘all clear’ signal. This is verified by the security camera videos.”

In a written statement to his employer, the captain said he mistook a gesture from the mate, who was responding to unrelated instructions on deck, as the “all clear” signal.

“He acknowledged me with a wave and started pulling a line out,” the captain wrote. “I thought it was the waveoff. The rest of the crew was standing at the gate as if to depart. The ramp was still down and they were still loading cars. I did not notice and went to the other wheelhouse and departed.”

Professional Mariner requested the investigative report and supporting documents, which include statements from the crew and victim, witness testimony, security video content, a timeline chronology and ferry-operation policies. The documents reveal a frantic scene, as most people aboard the 50-car ferry and others on the dock saw the vessel pull away before all the vehicles were aboard and secured. As hook lines snapped and the ramp fell, the witnesses were powerless to stop the car from dropping into the river.

Six vehicles had boarded and the seventh in line was the Toyota, which was caught half on the vessel and half on the ramp, according to the agency’s report to the U.S. Coast Guard. The car’s tires were smoking as Fretts gunned the engine, trying in vain to make it all the way onto the boat, according to witnesses.

“The last two vehicles I managed to get on the boat by yelling ‘Speed up!’” Surry’s mate wrote. “The other one — the last one, a blue car — I am yelling at her to speed up. She speeds up, but (a) tire is just spinning as the ramp folds and slowly drops. I yelled at her to get out. I try to hold on to her vehicle as she (went) down. Then I run and keep on shouting on the radio to get the captain’s attention.”

The oiler, who had been nearby assisting with securing cars, saw what was happening. He, too, could not reach the captain in time.

“I yelled over the radio to stop. The boat kept moving,” the oiler said. “I tried to stop a car but it was too late. The ramp snapped and a car went into the water. I ran to the rescue boat. … We put the boat in but we could not find the passenger.”

Fretts, at first, went under when her car submerged. The Toyota bobbed above the surface and she climbed out a window and stood on the car, and she was able to hold onto the bottom of the shore-side ramp. Eventually she was rescued by occupants of other vehicles in the queue and by a ferry terminal security guard.

“After my car went into the water, it went under and then floated up. That’s when I put my window down,” Fretts wrote in a statement to investigators. “I then was under the gate and I was able to hold on to the bottom of the gate/ramp while standing on my car. … I grabbed onto the bottom of the gate and started climbing my way around to the side of it. I grabbed a chain and a man’s hand and climbed up on top of the gate/ramp. I watched my car sink.”

At least two other cars were still on land, getting ready to load. They backed their vehicles up and narrowly avoided the same predicament as Fretts. In the end, she was uninjured.

The ferry service was suspended until the submerged vehicle was salvaged from the river the next day.

The department’s report includes a recommendation for more attention to communication practices on deck.

“All vessel crewmembers should be required to take annual refresher training on the JSF Operational Procedure Manual to include the proper method of communication between the captain and the crew. Pre- and post-training testing should be administered to ensure that the crewmembers understand all procedures,” the report said.

“Redundant communication systems are currently in place,” it said. “Communication procedures between the deck crews and the captain should be reviewed and, as necessary, improvements made and training provided.”

The Coast Guard is investigating the accident. In a press release, Sector Hampton Roads said it is probing whether there is “evidence of any act of misconduct, inattention to duty, negligence or a willful violation of the law on the part of any licensed or certificated person.” The investigation was still ongoing in October, said Petty Officer David Weydert, a Coast Guard spokesman.

By Professional Mariner Staff