Archive for the ‘emergency equipment’ Category

Mario Vittone

I am quite happy to see this new website come over the horizon.  I’ve read and listened to Mr. Vittone’s articles and seminars for a while now and find that he is the man in the know when it comes to things involving water safety and awareness.  Since he’s climbed into and out of more burning and sinking vessels than any of us, his words are especially welcome when it comes to filling in  the blanks of our cold water survival knowledge or even just recognizing a drowning. Link this one, bookmark it, pass it along on your Facebook page.  This one’s a keeper.

Looking forward to more good stuff from Mr. Vittone.

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It’s exactly 18 years ago tonight as I write this that I took a swim without the benefit of a PFD, a witness, or any idea that it was imminent.  No, I wasn’t plowing through heavy seas and swept over the side.  I wasn’t sleepily standing at the rail, uh… relieving a biological need.  And I wasn’t trying to jump a distance that I should’ve reconsidered.  I was climbing down a ladder in the dark to walk up the dock and call home.

My boat (the Dragon Lady) was waiting orders in the old General Marine Shipyard, formerly the Jackson Shipyard in Mariner’s Harbor, Staten Island, NY.

It was just after the evening meal and the cell phone was not yet part of my standard equipment.  So up to the pay-phone I went.  I told the Chief I was going up and he was settled in watching TV as I climbed up and over the barge we were tied up alongside.  No one was in sight as I steadied the ladder and took the first three rungs quickly.  My world started spinning in a sick and twisted circle as the ladder collapsed under me and promptly sent me falling into the Kill Van Kull.  The four feet of clearance between the dock and the barge was enough for me to fall straight in and miss hitting my head on the dock by inches.  I went fairly deep, having dropped from about twelve feet or so ( the Russian judge posts a 9.5) and came straight up to the surface.  Lucky for me I was a fit 36 year-old at the time and it was high water slack.  I managed to keep my wits.  I was wearing a heavy coat and boots and  aware enough to quickly get a handhold on the first thing I was able to grab, a broken exposed bolt that once held a string-piece in place. This same bolt could’ve been the end of me had I made contact with it on the way down.

After a long few minutes I was able to pull myself up onto the dock.  As I sat and considered how close I came to meeting my maker, I spied the hole in the dock which the leg of the ladder had slipped into.  That ladder was set hours before and as the barge rose with the tide it shifted the ladder to within a few millimeters of the damaged deck plank.  My body weight was enough to send it the last bit and drop me on my way.  I stood and reset the ladder and took a very chilly walk back to the tug.  As I entered the galley to find the Chief still watching TV, his query upon seeing how “hydrated” I was, “What, is it raining?”.  A valid question but for the look that must have been on my face.  I told him how I just missed killing myself and elicited the requisite, somewhat sympathetic “Wow, that sucks”……

I am more than aware of how differently it might have turned out.  I wasn’t expected to be back in short order.  In fact if I didn’t come

back for an hour or so, it would have been assumed I stopped in the local pub across the street for a beer (in those days we could still grab a cold one when nothing was scheduled for a good bit of time).  If I had bumped my noggin on the way down, no-one would have thought to look for me for a good long time.  And time is not what you have when you’re in the water in December.

If I had been wearing a P.F.D., I would at least been on the surface and maybe been able to call for help after “coming to”,  hopefully  before I succumbed to hypothermia.  Or at least, my remains would have been easier to locate.

So, I know it’s a tired old song, but  crew members are lost over the side every year.  The winter temperatures allow no quarter and will sap the warmth and life from your core as sure as the sun will rise tomorrow.  Taking a moment to make certain the ladder or gangway you’ll be using is safely set will prevent an unexpected swim.  And wearing a P.F.D. will give you time to attempt a self rescue, or at least ensure that when you’re discovered missing, you’ll still be on the surface.

Lesson learned my friends.

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Among the many things to deal with these days in the new age  is securing sensitive and critical areas of the vessel from unauthorized access from the outside.  Doing so can sometimes put the crew at risk in an emergency of the combustible sort.  Here’s a simple but elegant solution that has been put in use on my vessel.  The “Shadow Lock” system designed by Chief Engineer Gordon Oliver is an effective locking system that will defeat quick unauthorized access when engaged.  It can be “unlocked” with the flick of a wrist in mere seconds and drop out of the way to allow escape as necessary.

The pictures explain the system better than words, check it out, click on the thumbnails to enlarge.

The inner sleeve is 1" pipe, the outer sleeve has an I.D. of 1 1/4 ". The set screw is 3/8" with a tab tack welded to the top. The outer sleeve is drilled and threaded to accept the set screw. Note the cut-out. Align this to capture the opposite dog and slide the outer sleeve into place

The left end of the device (without the cut-out) has a small nub tacked on to prevent the outer sleeve from sliding off the end. Once in position, tighten the set screw. The device is invisible from the outside and it will take a rather noisy effort to defeat. When not in use it can be stored on an open dog.

Alignment detail


Locked, it's that simple.

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I’m sure it’s every Personnel office’s dream that they could send any man to any vessel and have him become an equal member of that team on arrival.  If each man in the talent pool carries the same qualifications and experience from a broad range of vessels, it should be no problem at all, in theory.

I’ve been victim and witness to the practice employed that requires personnel to (necessarily) serve on many different vessels during the course of a year usually in respect to replacing an ill  and/or absent crew member.  So many different vessels that the lack of familiarity adds to the confusion suffered while the general alarm is ringing and our wondering (half asleep) which vessel we’re really on.

On top of that, many resist the idea of regular drills thinking its too burdensome or unnecessary.  The drills are required by law, but logic tells us that the drills are for us, not the authorities, the authorities are  generally a long way off when the shit hits the fan.

In 1982 I was serving as Mate on a small coastal self-propelled barge.  I mentioned to the Captain that we hadn’t had a drill in a while. He acknowledged my observation by ringing the general alarm that evening just as I was sitting down to my dinner.  Of course, the drill wasn’t a complete disaster but it could have been much better.  After the Master critiqued our admittedly pitiful performance I answered, “I thought that’s what the drills are for Cap, to point out what we need to improve, right?”  It is why we perform drills, and perform them until we know how and what we’re doing.

When I worked for the East Coast Branch of Exxon Shipping Company Inland Division (I know it’s a mouthful), it was not at all unusual to be told to “take gear” prior to departing the vessel on crew change day so you will have all your stuff when reporting next hitch to a possibly different vessel, it was referred to as a Shanghai.  On reporting for the next hitch one could have been assigned to any of 10 very different vessels.  They were all properly equipped, but they were all configured differently. Different enough that you really had to investigate and fix in your mind where everything was once you got aboard.

It was maddening, almost no time to get acclimated was allowed and the confusion that ensued during the initial drills made it obvious we weren’t safe.  It was advisable to keep crib notes in your pocket so you had a quick reminder of where you were.

The truth of the matter is, for a while and even if fully crewed, any boat is going to be shorthanded (operationally) until each new crew member gets it clear which boat they’re on.  The fog of confusion that greets a general alarm when it wakes you from a deep sleep lasts long enough that precious time can be lost as one gets their act together and responds in the correct way to the correct place, never mind doing it in the dark.  It’s a situation many of us deal with every hitch or so, there’s a new guy on board that will need some extra attention until he settles in.

It’s easy to understand the need for drills in the first 24 hours after crew change.  We need to get familiar in a hurry, an emergency isn’t going to wait while we work on being an effective team.  Professionals know and acknowledge the many hurdles we face when we get underway, our preparedness is not negotiable.  The way things work and how we muster to respond is fairly standard, we recogize the equipment and can adapt to slightly different configurations quickly but the longer we have served and drilled on a specific vessel the better we can respond to an emergency on that vessel.  It’s just natural, as one becomes more attuned to their environment the quicker an issue can be addressed.

Spend a certain amount of time with a specific vessel and crew and you learn to work as a team and are aware of the strengths as well as the weaknesses in the team.  Only after a period of time do we cultivate a solid team mentality and the ability to address serious issues effectively.  It comes as no surprise that the new guy is going to be a bit lost during the first few drill rotations, but with repetition and familiarity and practicing with his crew, he becomes integral and dependable.

The main thing I ask any new crew member to do when they’re coming aboard the first time is to locate every piece of safety gear on-board.  It requires him to climb throughout the entire boat and list each and every thing he can find that is safety related.   The ISM code and company policy require he be given an orientation to acquaint him with all aspects he will be responsible for and then some.  As prudent and practical as that seems it’s only a small part of what he’ll need to get up to speed when responding to an emergency.

He needs to bond with the crew and get familiar with the boat.  I found Joel Milton’s article “Know your boat” to be quite appropriate in this case, since it touches on a disaster that showed what can happen with a crew that isn’t intimately aware of their vessels limitations and capabilities.  So many stories revolve around the crew’s lack of knowledge regarding their stability (the Valour), or the limitations of nav gear.  The thing about it though, is that it doesn’t have to be that way.  More often these issues are being treated with at least an acknowledgment that moving crew members too often can have a deleterious effect on vessel and crew safety.

The tug Valour was a fatal example of not knowing your vessel.  It was also a wake-up call for us all regarding proper communication and procedures.  Understanding the limitations and abilities of the entire crew is part of the definition of being “sea-worthy”, and keeping a proper lookout.  In case you haven’t seen it, here’s the time-line and final report on a subject that is worth revisiting time and again.

Crews will continue to be assigned rotations to different vessels as necessary to fully crew a company’s boats.  It is incumbent on the crews themselves to get familiar as quickly as possible to deal with emergencies as they arise, and they will.


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Almost eleven years before the Eklof tug “Scandia” and their barge the “North Cape” made their ill-fated appearance on Rhode Island’s Moonstone Beach, I was eastbound on the tug Emily S. during one of the coldest winters that I can remember with a loaded 25k barrel gasoline barge named the Richard K. en route from NY to Providence.

The weather was typical for the month of February with a stiff westerly blowing and a clear sky as we headed past Stratford Middle Ground and across Eastern Long Island Sound during the last few hours of my afternoon watch. We were strung out with about 1000′ of our tow wire and a 9″ circ. x 75′ shock-line connecting us to the barge. The tanker-man was riding the tug for this trip since the company’s newly acquired “western rivers” style barge had yet to get living quarters fabricated and approved. Our crew consisted of the Captain Ed Redden, myself as mate, Rick Thompson as deckhand, Engineer Mike McKeon, and our tanker-man house-guest one Mr. Joe Tribilowicz

When Ed came up to the wheelhouse to relieve me at 1800, the weather was threatening to get a bit sloppier. I made my turnover and went below.  I had my dinner and turned in to get some rest. I fell off to sleep feeling the boat riding ahead of a building stern swell.  I was comfortably dreaming a couple of hours later as we were approaching Plum Island buoy, when the wind and current began to interact in a most unpleasant way. The current was flooding toward the west-southwest and the wind had increased in velocity veering from out of the southwest blowing in direct opposition to the flood current.  This has the unwelcome effect in the bottleneck of the eastern sound of causing the seas to step up substantially toward the narrowing confines of Eastern Long Island Sound and The Race.

Ed made the decision to render more cable in order to allow for the surge that we were beginning to feel. Normally this would have had the desired effect of moderating the ride and giving the tow a chance to get in step with the tug, but not this time. It would have worked if the shock-line held, but of course if that was the case, there’d be no story.  A short time after Ed had rendered what he thought was a decent amount of additional wire, the shock-line parted and the barge was on its own in a 12-15′ following sea.

Tug and tow are riding “in step” when they meet the seas at the same time.

I felt the towline part as I lay in my bunk and was getting dressed when Rick came down to tell me what I already knew. There’s no mistaking when the towline let’s go, the engine’s pitch changes as the load is released and she starts to run without all that weight behind her and the quality of the ride changes for the worse. I made my way up to the wheelhouse and began the work of fixing the approximate position of where we lost the barge and reporting this info to the U.S.C.G. Group Long Island Sound as we attempted to find our lost charge.

The Captain had managed to recover the tow wire and what was left of the shock-line as I was trying to pick the barge out of a deteriorating radar picture. Things were getting too crazy. Without the tow to help stabilize the tug we were at the mercy of an increasingly steep and slightly confused sea.   Bringing the tug head up into the seas was not helping.  On an 85′ tug in these conditions even though we were secured for sea, things you’d never expect to move were flying everywhere and it was getting difficult to manage our situation when the Captain finally made the call to head for safe haven in New London, CT.

The fact that we lost the barge was a tough break (no pun intended). The attempts to find it in the building wind and seas were fruitless. The idea that 25k barrels of gasoline were floating around without a tug was really a serious situation for the entire eastern end of Long Island and Connecticut. No one was happy.

We  made it safely into New London Harbor and were allowed to put in at Fort Trumbull Coast Guard Station .  As we were approaching the dock we saw that a U.S.C.G. 91 footer had been dispatched to try and locate and track the barge. As we passed each other we heard one of their crew yell,”that boat’s coming in and we’re going out?”

Oh no, not a happy camper.  The ride they were in for was going to be an all-night roller coaster affair with no break until they were relieved by a larger unit or the weather moderated.

The Emily was a new-built just the year before and had a tow wire but not a proper towing machine, meaning it was not the kind that would render and recover wire as the strain reached a set point. The twin screw 1800 bhp of the Emily was more than adequate for her needs but she wasn’t very well suited to the task of recovering the barge in such conditions.  No amount of effort in the existing conditions would have warranted any further attempts, it was too dangerous for the crew.  There weren’t that many of us to start with and no one was on the barge to take a line or assist reconnecting the tow wire.

After we secured, I headed for the Duty Officer’s desk to compare notes, update, and convey our ill tidings to the Boss.  Needless to say it was a tough phone call to make or receive.  The Captain was busy with the authorities and the paperwork that always accompanies these things.

The time in the Coast Guard office was spent trying to come up with a plan to recover the barge.  We had the spare gear, we just needed to find the barge and be able to get someone aboard to clear the bridles of the old shock-line and shackle the new one in.  In due course a plan involving helicopters and tug crew was settled on.

My deckhand Rick Thompson  and I would fly out in a Coast Guard Rescue Helicopter over the barge come daylight and be lowered down to the deck with the necessary gear and take the tug’s line and reconnect the towline.  All we had to do was drop onto the slippery deck on a thin little thread of a wire.  I had never been in a helicopter much less dropped out of one, and I had no way of knowing until after the fact that Rick was scared to death of flying.  He never mentioned it until the whole affair was over, he said afterwards that even with that being the case he wasn’t letting me do it alone.

So, with daylight approaching and the winds moderating we set off in a CG van for Groton airfield while the tug got underway.   We dragged our new shock-line, shackle, and tagline into the aircraft and were suited up in Mustang suits and headsets.  I brought my camera, zoom lens and all, determined not to miss documenting this adventure.  We sat on the runway and waited as the pilot and crew prepared for takeoff, I had no idea how really noisy helicopters were.  You could barely hear yourself think much less converse without the headsets.  We taxied and then lifted off the tarmac and hovered a couple of meters off the ground for a few minutes.  I guess everything needed to warm up before we got too much altitude.  The crew chief was really upbeat and everywhere at once.  He checked everything twice, including me and Rick.

He asked if we were ok with going down on the wire and with a little more bravado than brains I said “Let’s f*****g do it”.  He tossed a big thumbs up at me and probably had a good laugh thinking about how big my eyes were going to be when I was being dropped out of the aircraft into the down-blast of the main rotor and toward a heaving deck.

We cruised at about 500′ and I could see the pilots console with every dial and button you could imagine.  The ride was noisier than I expected and a bit like a roller coaster.  I snapped as many photos as I could manage from my seat as we flew out towards Block Island Sound. The barge had managed to negotiate the Race by itself and into the Block Island Sound.  It was now Block Island’s turn to be worried, the prevailing wind and currents had put the “Great Salt Pond” squarely in the cross-hairs.

The “on-scene commander” was aboard the 91 footer we had passed on our way in, and was “in sight” of the barge calling the shots.  As we approached the scene, the helo commander’s voice came over the headset and said that on-scene command was concerned the conditions were too slick and we’d have to call off the intended deployment of men and material.  Another option was being discussed, but at that point, I wasn’t privy to it.

I felt the helo bank east and we were on our way to Otis Airfield on Cape Cod but not before we took a tour of a beached fishing boat along the south shore of the Cape.  We landed at Otis and were escorted to the galley on base.  The rec room nearby had a pool table and dartboard and plenty of hot coffee.  Until that trip I was a comfortable non-smoker having been successful at quitting the damn things about 2 years before.  It was odd that as I was walking past the cigarette machine that I reached for a couple of bills and selected my brand, opened the pack, and began to light one up. Rick took a moment to remind me that I didn’t need a cigarette, I remember clearly thinking that I earned it.  He and I shared a couple of smokes, a game of pool, and some idle conversation.

We were informed after being there a couple of hours or so that we were to be transported back to our boat, which was underway and had reacquired the tow without us.  Sonuvabitch, he caught the tow without us! The original idea was for the tug to rendezvous with the CG cutter and barge and after we were lowered to the deck the tug would re-attach and take us aboard, conditions permitting.  No one had even given thought to trying to recover the tow with so few men.  There were only three guys on the tug and one of them had to run the boat while the other two caught and connected the bridle.  This was so not the plan that was discussed.

We re-boarded the helo and went through the same preflight two-step as we got underway for Point Judith Coast Guard Station.  Just before the helo dropped our gear and us at Point Judith they took us on an overflight of the tug and tow allowing me to get some really great shots.  We landed and they waved us goodbye leaving us to drag everything onto a 35′ cutter and get underway for the Emily, which was just approaching the point eastbound.  The cutter took us to the Providence Towboat, Tug Reliance, just outside the Harbor of Refuge which ran us to the Emily where we boarded and settled back in.  I went to the pilothouse to relieve Ed who was as exhausted as I was.  We were all exhausted.

Ed would’ve been brought to task for not following the plan had his attempt failed and injured someone. But, the circumstances changed quicker than the plan could be modified, moving him to act.  The risk of injury with the tug being so shorthanded was no small consideration but the benefit gained from acting on changing circumstances and conditions saved a bad situation from getting worse.  It was a bit of good fortune that the opportunity presented itself to reacquire the tow and testament to the guts of the guys who did it.  The job got done, Ed deserved the credit for recognizing and acting on a serendipitous change of circumstance.  Rick and I were tweaked that we didn’t get to help, but it all worked out for the best.

The lesson learned brought home the point that a shockline is not always a smart addition to your towing gear.  If the shockline is too short, as it proved to be in this case, there’s no real point in putting one out.   The normal gear used these days is a large and heavy chain bridle attached to a large diameter wire pennant, permanently attached to the barge and a good length of wire set for the prevailing conditions.

“Wire to wire” with a proper length to start with would have satisfied the needs of the tow, even if it meant slowing down.  Risking a recovery with so few crew could’ve been a deadly situation but the man in charge was able to pick the right moment to take a shot at getting the barge under control and succeed.

The good folks of Block Island were breathing easier and all was right with the world. We made it into the Narragansett Bay East Passage and picked up the barge without further incident and made our delivery about 12 hours later than anticipated.  The many photos I took were lost when I thoughtlessly opened the back of the camera without rewinding the damn film.  I was so tired, I had completely forgotten that small technical part.

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February 21, 2003 at 10:00 am
Port Mobil Staten Island, The Bouchard 125

The Bouchard 125 explosion at Port Mobil was a nightmare come true for much more than just the principal players.  Information regarding this event is sketchy and incomplete, I thought I’d try to shed a little more light on what occurred that day since the anniversary of this event is nigh.  The incident represented the realization of a “worst case” scenario for every emergency service in the Port of New York and New Jersey, the aftermath of this event would leave 2 men dead, one critically injured, and a major oil transfer facility crippled.

Although many discussions have been had over the reasons this occurred, I can’t talk firsthand to any of the reasons or the “how or why” this event took place. I’ll leave that to the New York Times article I’ve linked here.  I can however, show you what happened thanks to a well-circulated surveillance video recording that has made the rounds within our industry.
What I’ve got here is the first 20 minutes edited down to less than ten minutes.  Bear in mind, this explosion consumed 56,000 barrels of gasoline, killed two men, and critically burned another.
In the opening seconds one can see how calm and quiet the day was and how quickly that quiet was obliterated.

What is seen flying through the air during the first instant of the explosion are pieces of the Bouchard 125 as big as a small bus landing hundreds of yards away from the nexus of the explosion.  She basically “unzipped”.

At the instant the explosion ripped the barge apart, the two men of her crew died.  One of those men had just received the news of the arrival of his new baby girl just 12 hours earlier.  She’ll turn six on the anniversary of her father’s death this year.

The bodies of the barge captain, John Kyne, and barge mate, Ford Ebank, were recovered.
Also keep in mind, when an event of this scale takes place, the assets that may be brought to bear are not assembled to put the fire out, but to limit damage from spreading.   When a fire of this magnitude occurs, the general strategy leans toward letting them burn out, especially for gasoline.  There really isn’t any logic in, or enough assets to extinguish such a fire.
In the Port of NY/NJ there are quite a few refineries and storage facilities.  Tank farms are a common sight in the Garden State.  N.Y. Harbor has only one tank farm left in Staten Island and that is/was Port Mobil (now KMI Staten Island).


The real heroes of this day, were without a doubt, the crews of the tugs Evening Mist and the Frances Roehrig.  If you look closely in the left-hand side of the frame there is another barge in harm’s way, the Bouchard 35.  The flames actually burned the paint off her forepeak and anchor.  The B35 had an explosive cargo aboard as well and the crew of the barge had been evacuated, but these tugs came in to save the 35 from certain doom at great personal risk.  They needed to make up to and shift the barge away from the terminal past the burning hulk of the 125 and not go aground in doing so.  The terminal’s channel is narrow and shallow and the current was luckily slack for a good portion of the maneuver.
It should be noted as well that during the first few moments, there were barges loading across the Arthur Kill at the dock where this video originated.  Another Bouchard barge is in the foreground. Out of camera range to the right is the RTC105 being tended by the Tug Dace Reinauer and the Tug Stephen Scott.  Both tugs were wetting down their charge as the fires raged.

My part in this begins a few minutes after the explosion took place.  I was on the Zachery Reinauer and had the RTC400 in tow alongside for delivery to Sewaren, NJ.  I didn’t notice the smoke on the horizon since I was just north of and then between the Arthur Kill Railroad Bridge and the Goethals Bridge on my way south.  My brother Jim, Captain on the Austin Reinauer, asked me if I heard of the explosion.  I had to say no.  He told me what had happened and I knew we had a couple of our boats down that way.  I also knew there wasn’t much chance of our making any delivery in an area that was on fire.  I decided to land the RTC400 at the old Gulfport dock and ran the light tug down the Kills to offer any assistance I could primarily to our guys on scene.  The Zachery had a damn fine water cannon on the top of the boat, I was sure it would be of use.
We moored the barge quickly and I woke the off watch so we would have a full crew aware and alert going into this.  My dispatcher was not exactly sure we should advance in that direction, but I more or less volunteered us.

My mate at the time was Dave Esdale who had worked for Mobil Oil Marine division for many years.  As we were heading south toward the fire I received a frantic call from his daughter whom I had to reassure that all was well with her Dad.  She only remembered how he had been based there frequently and didn’t think of anything else when she heard the news.  It took a minute to calm her down and reassure her that he was fine.  Poor kid was scared to death.

As we were approaching the scene and passed Fresh Kills it was clear that the size of the fire was unlike any I had ever seen.  When we were passing Port Reading I could see that we were not going to get nearer than a few hundred yards if we stayed with our equipment at the south dock of Motiva.
The barge Bouchard 15 in the north berth had no crew since the local authorities had the men evacuated.  The terminal had no one on the dock.  I decided that with the Dace and Stephen Scott taking care of one unit, I’d grab the other and take it out of the area to minimize any more exposed barges.  I had to play phone tag with my office to get Motiva’s office to get the Sewaren Fire Dept. to allow someone on the dock to help us recover the hose and let the lines go.  My crew made up to the barge, pulled in the hose, let the lines go, and came back inside.  I had no way of knowing whether there’d be any more explosions.  I was watching as the Evening Mist and the Frances were making up to the Bouchard 35 hoping they’d get out in one piece.

The fires burned for a couple of days as the pipelines burned off what was left in the manifolds.  The barge sank immediately after the blast since she suffered a brutal and fatal blow.  There was talk of terrorism which quickly faded as more details came to light but earlier maintenance issues and strange sounds emanating from the 125 moments before the explosion pointed to a mechanical failure.  Saying it could have been much worse would’ve been an understatement of the first order.  The cargo burned off and didn’t cause the widespread pollution a heavier grade of oil would have certainly caused.  The only other barge directly in harm’s way was shifted out of danger by a couple of tug crews that showed what “having a big pair” means.

The dock has since been repaired and the fines have been issued.  There were awards presented and lessons learned at great cost.  But more importantly, it’s a damn shame a child’s birthday will be forever linked with the day of her father’s death.

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