Texas mariner dies after falling from tugboat near Jacksonville

tugboat Pops
tugboat Pops
Oziel Martinez, who died while attempting to board a barge from the tugboat Pops.

A Texas man working on a tugboat in Jacksonville, Fla., died after falling into the St. Johns River while trying to board a dredge barge.

Oziel Martinez, 41, fell from the tugboat Pops at about 0300 on Nov. 22 while attempting to step onto the clamshell dredging barge New York. Martinez was not wearing a life jacket and did not resurface after entering the river, the Coast Guard reported.

“He was transiting from the tugboat on a walkway bridge to a barge,” said Coast Guard spokesman Vincent Moreno. “I am not sure of their operations or what was going on that night for them.”

Additional details about the incident have not been released. It’s not clear if either vessel was underway, if Martinez slipped or if there were any issues with the walkway as he crossed it.

The Coast Guard is investigating the incident but likely will need several months before determining the cause.

A wrongful death lawsuit filed on behalf of Martinez’s survivors suggests the barge New York was poorly illuminated. The allegation could not be confirmed. The suit lists Great Lakes Dredge and Dock (GLDD) and Gore Marine as defendants and seeks at least $10 million in damages.

“For unknown reasons, (the) Great Lakes vessel was not properly lit for work at night,” according to the suit filed by attorneys Tony Buzbee and Chris Leavitt of The Buzbee Law Firm in Houston. “This lack of lighting contributed to a very dangerous work environment and led to Mr. Martinez’s death.”

Martinez worked aboard the 70-foot Pops operated by Gore Marine of Townsend, Ga. Great Lakes Dredge and Dock manages the 200-foot New York, one of the largest backhoe dredges in the world. Gore Marine did not respond to an inquiry about the incident. GLDD declined to comment and referred questions to Gore Marine.

Authorities did not specify the dredging project Martinez was assisting with on the morning he died, or his role aboard Pops. The exact location where he went into the river also was not released. Moreno said the incident occurred on the north side of Blount Island, where much of Jacksonville’s port facilities are located, near a series of bridges connecting it with the mainland.

GLDD is involved with efforts to dredge in and around the Port of Jacksonville. The company has contracted to widen and deepen the federal channel to 47 feet, expand a turning basin and deepen berths at the Jacksonville Port Authority Blount Island Marine Terminal, GLDD said in September.

A Jacksonville Port Authority spokeswoman said only that the incident involved a private user of the Port of Jacksonville “and did not occur at any (port authority) facilities.”

Martinez, whose family lives in Starr County roughly 100 miles west of Brownsville, Texas, was married with two children. He was a 20-year veteran of the maritime industry who joined the International Union of Operating Engineers (IUOE) Local 25 six years ago. He worked for several large dredge operators over the years, including GLDD. He made an impression on his co-workers every step of the way and developed a solid reputation.

“There were many times we would get a call from multiple signatory contractors at the same time, requesting Ozzy for their boat,” the union said in a statement posted on social media. “He was an exceptional boat captain, but an even more exceptional family man and friend.”

“If you were working beside him on the tug or were on the other end of the line or pipe as he would make up with the derrick or dredge, you knew you were in good hands,” the statement continued. “His family was always in good hands with him as well.”

The Coast Guard spent more than a day looking for Martinez from air and water. A dive team from the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office also assisted in the search. His body was recovered on Nov. 24.

By Professional Mariner Staff