Mechanic, fearing collision with bulk ship, leaps from disabled small boat and drowns

A marine mechanic drowned in the Houston Ship Channel after jumping off a disabled line-handling boat when he thought a bulk carrier was about to ram it. He was not wearing a life vest.

The body of Danny Hopper, 31, of Houston, was found floating in the waterway four days after his April 20 encounter with the 563-foot UBC Singapore, the U.S. Coast Guard said.

The incident happened at 2138 just east of the I-610 bridge, near the Kinder Morgan facility at Galena Park. Hopper, alone, was transporting Texas Mooring Inc.’s 20-foot line-handling boat TXM 16 from Manchester Terminal to the company’s repair shop on the nearby Old River in Channelview.

TXM 16 stalled in the middle of the channel. The outbound UBC Singapore, with a cargo of copper cathodes, was bearing down on the small boat. Hopper leaped from the boat rather than risk being rammed and capsizing, said Lt. Scott Mercurio, the Coast Guard’s acting senior investigator in Houston.

“A tankerman on another vessel witnessed it,” Mercurio said. “He saw a man jumping from the boat. We have evidence from video surveillance that shows the line boat dead in the water and the UBC Singapore basically run into it.”

In the end, TXM 16 never capsized and had no damage. Mercurio said the Coast Guard isn’t absolutely certain that the ship struck the boat.

“We definitely know the UBC Singapore pushed the line boat,” he said. “Whether it was actually the wake that pushed the boat, it’s difficult to say.”

Hopper wasn’t wearing a life vest, Mercurio said. Regulations don’t require one on such a voyage.

The Cyprus-flagged UBC Singapore is operated by Athena Marine Co. of Cyprus. Its owner is Southern Princess Shipping Co. No public contact information could be found for either firm.

Mercurio said the bulk carrier was sailing at 4 knots at the time of the incident. The crew cooperated with investigators. Visibility was clear and the water was calm. Mercurio said TXM 16 had proper lighting. He didn’t reveal the nature of any radio chatter or lookouts.

An independent contractor, Hopper had been called to Manchester Terminal because Texas Mooring requested a mechanic to check for a suspected problem with TXM 16.

“Line boatmen had made some complaint that the vessel was making noise,” Mercurio said. The investigation revealed that TXM 16 stalled after its propeller was fouled.

“He was underway, but the vessel caught a mooring line in the propeller. As a result, he lost propulsion,” Mercurio said. “There’s junk in the water in the Houston Ship Channel. As you operate around here, there is a possibility of picking up something in your intakes.”

Texas Mooring President Francis Sharp said he believes the ship struck his boat. He confirmed that the boat didn’t capsize. It returned to service after passing surveys.

The Coast Guard searched for Hopper with a 25-foot rescue boat, the cutter Manta and a helicopter. His body was found on the morning of April 24.

The Coast Guard was still investigating the case in June.

Dom Yanchunas

By Professional Mariner Staff