Watertight doors were pinned open before fatal sinking, USCG says

Watertight doors were pinned open when a pushboat capsized and sank in the Houston Ship Channel, killing a deck hand, according to a U.S. Coast Guard safety alert. It said such a condition can create a “death trap” for mariners.

The Coast Guard urges all mariners to keep watertight doors closed and dogged after using a doorway.

Steven Edward Seymore, 29, drowned inside J.R. Nicholls in the Feb. 10 accident. The Coast Guard said the 56-foot vessel was running without barges and astern of a tractor tug when the larger boat’s wake began flooding its deck.

J.R. Nicholls initially listed to one side, but then rolled to the other and sank very quickly, investigators said. Watertight integrity was compromised.

“The vessel’s watertight doors leading to its engine room each had been pinned open,” the Coast Guard said. “The pushboat had very little freeboard and was fully loaded with fuel and water. As it took the wake of the tractor tug, the vessel listed to one side and down flooded the engine room through a watertight door.”

Seymore was in the engine room and never got out. The Coast Guard said salvors recovered his body on the day after the sinking.

“A person working in the engine room was trapped by the incoming water and drowned,” the alert said. “Two others narrowly escaped death after being trapped in a berthing area for over 10 minutes, breathing only a pocket of air before taking dramatic efforts to reach the surface via a broken window.”

Dan Barton, a lawyer representing Seymore’s family, said the open doors not only allowed the deck hand to become trapped, but may have been a cause of J.R. Nicholls losing buoyancy in the first place.

“Certainly the watertight door is a centerpiece of what caused his death. If the watertight door was closed properly, the boat would not have capsized and sunk,” Barton said. “We agree with the Coast Guard’s safety alert, without a doubt, but there were other negligent acts that contributed to his death.”

Barton said he plans to contact the manufacturer of the watertight doors to learn more about their proper use and what training is needed. He could not confirm witness reports that Seymore may have been painting in the engine room that night. If true, that could explain why someone pinned the doors open.

J.R. Nicholls was owned and operated by Kinder Morgan Energy Partners LP of Houston. Kinder Morgan officials declined to comment on the casualty until after all investigations are complete.

The alert was issued in April while the Coast Guard was still probing the exact causes of the accident. It noted that several previous safety alerts had warned mariners not to be complacent with watertight doors. Stability letters, regulations and widely known “good marine practice” dictate that the door be kept shut and properly maintained.

By Professional Mariner Staff