Health problems may have prompted pilot's fatal ladder fall

A federal pilot who died in a fall from a Jacob's ladder off the Delaware coast was "severely overweight" and was taking several medications for cardiovascular ailments, the U.S. Coast Guard said in an investigative report.

Lynn Deibert, president of the Chesapeake & Interstate Pilots Association, was killed Feb. 4, 2007, while attempting to board the 645-foot coal carrier M/V Energy Enterprise from pilot boat Big Stone 5 (PM #103). Witnesses reported that Deibert, 52, climbed about halfway up the ladder, paused for 30 seconds and started to climb down slowly.

Deibert then let go with both hands, fell straight backwards and plunged into the Atlantic Ocean. He was probably struck by the pilot boat, Coast Guard investigators said in their report, which Professional Mariner obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request. Deibert's body was never found.

The veteran pilot's last annual physical was about six weeks before the accident. The Coast Guard said Deibert, who was 5 feet, 10 inches tall, weighed 302 pounds.

"Pilot was severely overweight … and on several meds for high blood pressure and cardiovascular needs," the Coast Guard said in its Causal Analysis. "These meds had such side effects as causing dizziness, low blood pressure, fainting, slow heartbeat and drowsiness."

Deibert's death was the fifth fatality among U.S. pilots or pilot-boat operators in a 13-month period in 2006 and 2007. The Delaware incident was the second of those cases in which Coast Guard investigators highlighted the pilot's health problems in the explanation of what happened. The other was Boston pilot Capt. Robert Cordes, who fell to his death from a Jacob's ladder onto a steel barge in 2006 (PM #102).

The Coast Guard casualty investigators said Cordes had three medical problems, each of which was a "latent unsafe condition." The Freedom of Information Act version of the report withheld the Boston pilot's exact ailments, although elsewhere in the document the Coast Guard highlighted rules for documenting cardiovascular, diabetes and vision problems. Cordes was 5 feet, 11 inches tall and weighed 264 pounds.

While several pilot associations said they reviewed and improved safety policies as a result of the five deaths, they have not proposed stricter medical oversight.

"The pilots understand the physical demands of their job, and frankly there hasn't been a need to reinforce that or bring that home to them," said Paul Kirchner, executive director of the general counsel of the American Pilots' Association (APA).

The Coast Guard didn't definitively conclude in the Cordes or Deibert cases that their medical conditions caused the accidents. Deibert was probably struck by the 50-foot Big Stone 5 and its propellers, investigators said.

Francis Burn, who was vice president of the Chesapeake & Interstate Pilots, told Professional Mariner in 2007 that part of Deibert's floatation device was found in the pilot boat's prop. The association didn't respond to requests for comment on the Coast Guard report.

Kirchner and Andy Hammond, executive director of the Boston Harbor Pilot Association, both believe that the root cause of Cordes' accident was an unsafe Jacob's ladder, not a medical episode.

Hammond formerly was a merchant mariner license reviewer at the Boston Regional Examination Center. He is a member of the Merchant Mariner Personnel Advisory Committee and serves as a consultant who helps mariners prepare their licensing applications. He said pilots keep themselves in tremendous physical condition, because they know intimately what the pitfalls would be otherwise.

"Their livelihood is to be able to hop from the pilot boat and climb up the Jacob's ladder and climb up to the wheelhouse. So they keep themselves in good shape," Hammond said. "It's not a regulatory thing – it's self-imposed."

Since the 1970s, federal law has required pilots to undergo annual physicals, with the results provided to their state pilot commissions for review. Beginning last year, the results are also forwarded to the Coast Guard's National Maritime Center. The NMC is in the midst of establishing a more comprehensive medical review process for all licensed mariners, and officials there have promised to evaluate health conditions with a keener eye toward navigational safety. One impetus has been the medical problems of the San Francisco pilot in the Cosco Busan disaster in November 2007 (PM #111).

As a result of the new scrutiny at the NMC, the APA is not recommending reforms on the state level.

"In the past, the pilot commissions stepped in, because the Coast Guard program was not adequate," Kirchner said. Now, "if (medical evaluation at the NMC) is going to be as successful as the Coast Guard says it will, it's possible that states don't need to do anything more."

Hammond said more regulation would be necessary only if it becomes clear that current rules fail to weed out unsafe pilots.

"To me, there's a system in place," Hammond said. "If there is someone who is falling through the cracks, I would leave it to the states to set up a monitoring system – if it's getting out of hand."

As a federal pilot, Deibert was not a member of the APA, Kirchner.

Dom Yanchunas

By Professional Mariner Staff