Third mate electrocuted while preparing circuit breaker for installation on tanker

An ex-football captain and highly honored 2007 graduate of Mass Maritime, Christopher Erickson, 24, was serving as third mate on a chemical tanker in the Gulf of Mexico. Courtesy Massachusetts Maritime Academy

An ex-football captain and highly honored 2007 graduate of Massachusetts Maritime Academy was electrocuted while working aboard a chemical tanker in the Gulf of Mexico.

Christopher Erickson, 24, was killed Jan. 7 while serving as third engineer aboard S/R Wilmington. The U.S. Coast Guard said the accident happened at 1610, about 12 nautical miles south of Galveston, Texas.

Witnesses reported that Erickson was helping to prepare a new circuit breaker for installation when something went wrong. Erickson and the first engineer “were standing side by side in the electrical workshop" when Erickson was electrocuted, said the Coast Guard’s lead investigator, Marine Science Technician Second Class Michael Curran. The workshop is on the same level — but separated from — the engine room.

“It’s a room set up for the testing of electrical components," said Chief Warrant Officer Lindell Gentry, the assistant senior investigating officer. “They had the new circuit breaker there, and they were basically back-testing it. It was a 480-volt undervoltage release that required a charge."

An undervoltage release is a device that shuts the circuit breaker off when there is an absence of power and protects it against uncontrolled restarting.

The investigators said they could draw no conclusions about the cause of the accident until they receive reports from a coroner and a forensic electrician.

S/R Wilmington is a 636-foot tanker built in 1984. The 25,508-gross-ton, single-screw vessel is propelled by a 17,000-hp Mitsubishi Sulzer diesel engine. The U.S.-flagged ship transports petroleum and chemical products domestically.

The Coast Guard initially received a report from the SeaRiver Maritime vessel that a crewman had been “severely shocked." The ship’s crew used a defibrillator and gave cardiopulmonary resuscitation and oxygen, to no avail.

A Coast Guard rescue swimmer arrived by helicopter within an hour, but Erickson could not be revived. Erickson, of Holden, Mass., majored in marine engineering at Massachusetts Maritime. The academy’s president, Rear Adm. Richard Gurnon, said the administration appointed Erickson cadet chief engineer during his senior year. While some cadets seek such seagoing honors mainly as resume-builders, Erickson truly desired to operate ships, according to Gurnon. His teammates on the football squad voted him captain.

“He was smart, friendly, well-liked, truly a leader," Gurnon said. “This was a guy who loved to be at sea and loved to be in the engine room. That’s all he wanted to do, and he wanted to be the best at it."

Gurnon said the news that Erickson was killed was “just devastating to this community." The senior officers were doubly shocked when they realized it was a SeaRiver vessel. The ExxonMobil Corp. subsidiary, created as a result of the Exxon Valdez disaster, is known for its ardent attention to best practices.

“This company is unbelievably safety-focused," the academy president said. “To have that accident happen on their watch is just unfathomable."

Ray Botto, a spokesman for SeaRiver, said the company wouldn’t comment on the incident. Once the Coast Guard investigative report is completed, Houston-based SeaRiver will use the findings in crew training, he said.

“Those lessons learned … will be disseminated throughout the fleet and applied to prevent a recurrence," Botto said.

Erickson’s alma mater didn’t wait for a formal report to begin drilling its future engineers on possible scenarios. “Human error, I suspect," Gurnon said. “Likely it will be a failure to communicate. Somebody was doing one thing, and somebody was doing something else."

As soon as the academy heard about the accident, Gurnon said his chief engineer “made it known that this one’s going to be re-emphasized continuously in the classroom."

By Professional Mariner Staff