A deadly season for marine pilots

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Two fatal accidents during the first two months of the year emphasize dangers of the job

Two fatal accidents during the first two months of the year emphasize dangers of the job

Marine pilots associations across the country were shocked this winter when back-to-back accidents resulted in two deaths.

“We are all very concerned about this spike in fatal accidents,” says Paul Kirchner, executive director of the American Pilots Association. “I can’t say there’s any one difference that can account for these accidents. I can say that we talk about safety issues at every single meeting. It is constantly on our minds.”

On Jan. 20, a 57-foot pilot boat with the Galveston/Texas City Pilots Association, named Galtex, capsized in 5- to 7-foot seas off Galveston, Texas, trapping marine pilot Capt. William Kern and pilot boat operator George R. Frazier inside. Shortly before the accident, Kern had disembarked from the SancoSea, a research vessel from Gibraltar. The crew of Texas, a nearby pilot boat, saw the capsizing and placed a mayday call to the Coast Guard.

Kern was pulled from the water about 30 minutes later by the crew of Texas and was taken by ambulance to an area hospital for treatment, according to information on the International Marine Pilots Association Web site (www.internationalpilots.org ). Galtex reportedly sank only minutes later. Coast Guard crews, using a helicopter and rescue boat, searched the area until dark but could not find Frazier.

The following morning a dive team discovered Frazier’s body still inside the sunken pilot boat. Frazier had reportedly been a pilot boat operator with the Galveston/Texas Pilots Association for nearly 20 years.

Two weeks later, on Feb. 5, a federal marine pilot was killed while attempting to transfer from a pilot boat to the Energy Enterprise, a 645-foot U.S.-flagged freight vessel, the Coast Guard says. The pilot, 52-year-old, Lynn Deibert, was climbing a Jacob’s ladder hung over the lee side of the Energy Enterprise when he was struck by the pilot boat, named Big Stone 5, and fell into the 39-degree waters of in Delaware Bay, about two miles off Cape Henlopen, Del. Deibert was reportedly wearing a PFD when he entered the water.

Coast Guard authorities launched a search for Deibert using rescue boats, a helicopter and the cutter Dependable, the agency says. Crews conducted 13 searches over 14 hours, but could not find Deibert, who was a longtime federal pilot with the Chesapeake Federal Pilots Association.

“Marine piloting is a physically demanding occupation that involves some risk-taking,” Kirchner says. “Marine pilots work in a dynamic environment, especially when they are transferring from one vessel to another.”

Flagged trade vessels transiting U.S. coastal waters are required by law to carry marine pilots. Foreign-flagged vessels are required to carry state pilots with licenses issued by the states in whose waters the vessel is transiting. U.S.-flagged trade vessels, depending on their cargo, can carry either a federally licensed or state marine pilot.

Three American marine pilots died on the job in 2006, Kirchner says. All died while getting on and off the vessels.

“Once the investigations into these accidents are complete, we will see if there are lessons that can be learned for the future,” says Kirchner.

For more about the dangers faced by marine pilots see the February issue of Soundings (“50-knot gusts test marine pilot crew’s mettle,” Page 32).