Tugboat captain dies after falling from dock ladder

Sixteen days before the tugboat Aries sank in the Bering Sea, its captain was killed in a fall from an Alaska pier.

Michael Church, 66, of Bellevue, Wash., died as a result of the accident at about 1430 on June 10 at the Alaska Railroad Corp. Seward Freight Dock, said Chief Tom Clemons of the Seward Police Department.

Church plunged 20 to 25 feet and struck his head on the tugboat before landing in the water, witnesses reported. Church was on his way to board the vessel, which was tied up to the dock.

"He was attempting or beginning to climb down the ladder, and he fell off the pier and hit his head on the boat on the way down, and he ended up in the water," said Kevin Kennedy, co-owner of C&K Marine, which operates Aries.

The tug's mate and chief engineer told investigators that Church was on the quay at the top of a 20-foot ladder, carrying a cardboard box. The engineer asked the captain if he needed help getting the box down to the boat.

Just as Church nodded yes, the engineer "saw the cardboard box flying through the air and then (the mate and engineer) both saw Capt. Church falling backwards 'cartwheeling' from the platform approximately 20 feet to the water," said William Hupprich, Alaska Railroad's vice president and general counsel.

"He struck his head on the starboard gunwale side of the Aries and then fell into the water," Hupprich said.

His crew got Church out of the water quickly but were not able to revive him, Coast Guard spokesman David Mosley said.

Church suffered a catastrophic head injury and was taken to Seward Providence Medical Center, where he was pronounced dead. The Alaska State Medical Examiner's Office performed an autopsy and toxicology tests, but the results were not made public.

Mosley said the accident originated ashore and not on a vessel, so the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) led the investigation.

Scott Ketcham, OSHA's area director in Anchorage, confirmed that the accident area was inspected after the fatality, and aspects of the case were still open in October.

A police report said there were no obstructions on the dock that might have caused Church to trip.

He was 5 feet 7 inches tall and weighed between 260 and 300 pounds, according to the Alaska Railroad's investigative report.

By Professional Mariner Staff