Tugboat deck hand killed during a barge transfer in California

A Foss Maritime Co. deck hand was killed when a tow bridle unexpectedly became taut and pinned her against a tugboat railing.
Piper Cameron, 26, died of injuries in the Feb. 20 accident at an offshore tanker lightering zone in Santa Monica Bay, off El Segundo, Calif. A fellow crewman suffered a severe leg injury when he attempted to come to her aid.
Cameron was a part of the four-person crew of the tug Emma Foss. At the moment of the accident, Emma Foss was transferring control of the fuel barge San Pedro to the tractor tug Arthur Foss. Cameron’s task was to retrieve the starboard bridle from the tug’s stern after the San Pedro crew released it from the barge, said Coast Guard investigator Lt. Greg Loveless.
“The order had been given to bring in the lines,” Loveless said. “She was responsible for pulling in one of these two bridle legs. The line came taut, and when it came taut, she was in the way of the line, and it basically crushed her against the bulwark on the side of the boat.”
Cameron was taken to Daniel Freeman Hospital. The Los Angeles County Coroner pronounced Cameron dead of trauma to the body and head.
The mate of Emma Foss was on the port stern retrieving the other bridle. He rushed to Cameron’s aid and was struck by the taut starboard bridle. The 38-year-old mate was taken by helicopter to Harbor General Hospital and later was moved to Long Beach Memorial Hospital.
He underwent nine hours of surgery to his right leg. Although he was not released from the hospital until March 20, he was able to attend Cameron’s memorial service March 8.
Detective Robert Harris of the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department said the mate’s actions were valiant.
“He saw her pinned by her towline, and he immediately went to her side to try to assist her,” Harris said. The line “pushed him over a tall cleat and broke his leg. A very heroic act.”
Foss officials said the transfer maneuver was not an unusual one. There were no adverse conditions.
“Weather and swell conditions were normal,” Foss President and Chief Operating Officer Gary C. Faber said in a letter to customers. “The crew involved was experienced and had previously conducted this operation.”
The Coast Guard reported 6- to 8-foot swells with very little wind when the accident happened shortly before 1100.
Bruce Reed, Foss’s vice president of operations, told Professional Mariner the transfer was “a routine operation” but not a daily one. Foss crews had performed the maneuver there 19 times.
The 186-foot San Pedro was serving as a vapor-recovery barge that morning. Loveless said the tugs were transferring control because Arthur Foss is a newer vessel with a Voith-Schneider propulsion system that can better maneuver the barge alongside a tanker.
Arthur Foss had connected its towline to the barge, and the Emma Foss crew was preparing for retrieval of its disconnected lines.
“They were breaking tow, and the tow had a single wire line, and then it went to two soft bridles. (Cameron) was responsible for pulling in one of the two bridle legs,” Loveless said.
“In a standard operation, the captain gives the command to cast off,” he said. “The men on the barge take the eye of the bridle off the bitt, and the (tug) deck hands pull it in. The crew of the barge makes an effort to allow the deck hands on the tug to pull the line in without it getting in the water because there’s a risk it could get into the prop of the tug.”
The mate retrieved his port-side bridle line. But the barge crew didn’t loosen the starboard bridle as quickly. That blue Plasma line was about 2 inches in diameter, Loveless said.
“They had difficulty releasing one of the bridle legs due to tension,” Loveless said. “They never were able to release it until after the incident.”
No official cause of the accident had been announced by early April.
Reed said Foss responded to the incident by reviewing safety standards for all its vessels. The company determined the need for “selective corrective actions that we’ve already implemented.” He declined to specify them.
Cameron was among the most popular workers on the Los Angeles and Long Beach waterfronts. A deck hand at Foss since 2001, she also worked part-time for the ferry service Catalina Express. She was a native of Catalina Island and most recently lived in Huntington Beach.
The Sheriff’s Department ruled the death an accident, and nothing “grossly negligent” occurred in the operation, Harris said. The homicide detective said he was moved by Cameron’s biography and the emotional reaction of Cameron’s coworkers and other Los Angeles-area mariners.
“She’s a good kid working her ass off in a male-dominated environment and holding her own — very skilled and competent in the profession,” Harris said.
Almost 1,000 people attended Cameron’s memorial service in Rolling Hills Estates.
Coast Guard investigators in March were still reviewing Foss company policies and training manuals as part of the probe. No equipment problems were found on the vessels, Loveless said.
“The Coast Guard is investigating thoroughly so that basic lessons can be learned from this and safety recommendations can come out of it, so nothing like this ever happens again,” Loveless said.
Foss named a 130-foot service boat Piper Inness — Cameron’s first and middle names — in her honor. She was on the verge of receiving her master of towing license and would have become master of that boat.

The mate was still undergoing physical therapy in late March. Reed said the mate was “making great progress” but the company doesn’t know if he will be able to return to maritime work.

By Professional Mariner Staff