A U.S. Coast Guard hearing this month into the April 13 capsizing of the Seacor Power in the Gulf of Mexico cast a spotlight on how a fierce storm caught a seasoned crew off guard, while communication and equipment problems complicated the response.
The Marine Board of Investigation hearing into the catastrophic wreck off the Louisiana coast was held over two weeks in mid-August in a hotel conference room in Houma, La. The incident left 13 dead among the 19 crewmembers and contractors who boarded the Seacor Power in Port Fourchon, La., hours earlier.
The 175-foot boat left port a little after noon, headed to service a Talos Energy platform at Main Pass 138, about 40 miles east of Venice. With its 265-foot legs raised, Seacor Power ran into a line of unexpectedly severe thunderstorms that moved southeast into the Gulf.
Behind it came an unusually potent “wake low,” a circular low-pressure system that kept the winds and seas high into the next morning, National Weather Service forecaster Philip Grigsby testified.
“It was almost a 12-hour event,” he said.
Those seas would reach 10 to 12 feet in the aftermath, confounding rescue attempts and keeping divers at bay, according to Coast Guard and private rescuers. Six survivors were pulled from the Gulf. The boat’s veteran captain, David Ledet, was among those who died.
The oil services vessel capsized seven miles south of Port Fourchon at 3:41 p.m., while crew members made a last-ditch attempt to lower its massive legs to the sea floor for stability.
Two of the survivors offered emotional testimony of the wreck and a prolonged wait for rescue in the Gulf. One, first mate Bryan Mires, described a squall packing 79 mph winds, followed by another squall.
Mires said he received two calls from the galley during that time, with reports that the watertight doors, which are meant to be shut while in transit, weren’t sealing.
He began to lower the Seacor Power’s legs to stabilize it, while turning toward the storm, to no avail. He said Ledet then took the helm, steering the other way before it flipped.
“I realized we were not going to be able to correct it, so I hit the tilt alarm, which sends an alarm through the vessel,” Mires said. “This all happened in a minute or two.”
Mires saw Ledet disappear from the wheelhouse before the first mate ended up in the Gulf. He said he’d grabbed the ship’s search and rescue radar transponder before floating away, but it didn’t work. Four ships passed him by in the Gulf before an offshore supply vessel, M/V Cape Cod, rescued him, Mires testified.
It wasn’t the only equipment failure cited in testimony during the hearing.
One Coast Guard commander testified they discovered a “connectivity issue” that morning that halted weather alerts through the Navtex system. It was not fixed until after Seacor Power had capsized.
In the meantime, the National Weather Service had issued several special marine warnings as the line of thunderstorms moved south. Each message warned of tropical storm force winds — 39 mph or greater — accompanied by “suddenly higher waves.”
The accessibility of those warnings to the crew aboard the Seacor Power became a key focus of the hearing.
Seacor Marine officials, who placed responsibility for tracking the weather en route with the captain, described several other technologies on board to hear updated forecasts, including NOAA weather on VHF, the Inmarsat-C system, or the internet.
An inspection this year showed those systems in working order on Seacor Power. American Bureau of Shipping auditors testified that a recent audit showed no major issues or red flags with the vessel or its operation.
Ledet expressed no apparent concern when he sent out a routine email update shortly after 3 p.m. as Seacor Power moved across the Gulf. Ledet put the seas at 3 to 4 feet, with winds at 15 to 20 mph — well within the lift boat’s limits.
According to Mires, the winds shot up shortly after Ledet returned to the wheelhouse from sending that e-mail.
Soon, the Coast Guard was scrambling to respond to several distress calls from the Gulf, including an EPIRB beacon from Seacor Power that at first gave off no location.
But Coast Guard LTJG Brandon Critchfield testified that when they called a Seacor dispatcher, he insisted the lift boat remained in port.
“His words were: ‘The vessel was in Fourchon,’ and I believe his words that followed were, ‘I can guarantee you, they’re at the dock,’” Critchfield said.
Another company official called back awhile later to say Seacor Power was indeed believed to be capsized, but then claimed there were only seven aboard, he added.
The Seacor official, operations manager Paul Fremin, denied telling anyone there were only seven aboard, however.
Ultimately, the captain of a nearby lift boat that was jacked up, Rockfish, alerted the Coast Guard and Seacor Marine to the flipped vessel, igniting a search for survivors that was frustrated by severe winds and high seas that kept divers at bay for days.
Attorneys for both Mires and Seacor Marine were allowed to question witnesses during the hearing, previewing arguments likely to emerge in ongoing litigation.
Mires is among more than a dozen survivors or family members of the deceased who have filed lawsuits in state or federal courts, alleging the company placed the crew in harm’s way.
Seacor Marine has argued in court the storm on the afternoon of the incident was a “force majeure” event, a sudden act of nature.
The marine board investigation may result in recommendations on how to prevent similar accidents and could determine if anyone committed misconduct or failed to perform their duties, said Capt. Tracy Phillips, the presiding officer.
The National Transportation Safety Board, which is conducting a parallel investigation and plans to release its own findings on the cause of the wreck, joined in the hearing.
Editor’s note: Professional Mariner went to press before the Coast Guard completed its Marine Board of Investigation in Houma, La. This report offers details from the first six days of testimony.