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Old 09-04-2006, 22:08   #1
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Lost at sea

This is a 11 part miniseries, of the stores about sailors aboard cargo ships. And the cruel condtions inwhich they endure!!

Uneven regulation and a ready supply of cheap labor
have added a hard reality to the romance of going to sea

Copyright 1996 Houston Chronicle
IN 1759, the English poet and critic Samuel Johnson offered a caustic description of life at sea that might well apply today.
"No man will be a sailor who has contrivance enough to get himself into a jail," Johnsonsaid, "for being in a ship is being in a jail, with the chance of being drowned. A man in jail has more room, better food and commonly better company."
In many ways, of course, the maritime world of the late 20th century is far removed from that of the mid-18th. Ultralarge crude carriers -- a typical one as long as four football fields and capable of holding 126 million gallons of oil -- disgorge into smaller but still enormous tankers in the Gulf of Mexico because no port can accommodate them. Opulent cruise ships and ferries ply Caribbean and European waters. Great Britain, a global sea power during Johnson's lifetime, has been knocked back to second-tier status by nations such as Japan and Greece.
Some things, however, have not changed. Tens of thousands of seafarers from poor countries continue to endure miserable, life-threatening conditions on decrepit vessels flying the flags of Honduras or Romania or Antigua. Wages are astonishingly low, if they are paid at all. Food is scarce, spoiled and frequently roach-infested.
If you are a young Chinese sailor like Feng Ren, a crew member on the Panamanian-flag Cassiopeia last year, you will be forced to sign a loyalty oath professing your love for the "socialist motherland." And yet when you suffer from piercing abdominal pain, as Feng did, you may be refused medical treatment by the captain, whose primary and perhaps sole concern is his cargo.
You will frequently meet with indifference, if not hostility.
Unhappy with your job? Buy your own plane ticket home from Rotterdam. A hundred other young men from the shantytowns of Manila will line up to take your place.
Want to go public with your complaints? Few will listen, and in some places -- the Maldives, for instance -- your outspokenness may land you in jail when you get home.
Expect little or no compensation if you shatter a leg or lose a hand. Die and only your family and friends will care; if the vessel is not sizable and a total loss, your death may not even be counted.
In an eight-month investigation, the Houston Chronicle found that the world's seas are routinely traversed by thousands of aged, poorly maintained ships that lack the most basic lifesaving and firefighting equipment. Such ships often are manned by overworked, ill-trained sailors who are unable to communicate, especially during crises, because of language barriers. Cultural differences add to the tension.
"The international shipping community does not actively police itself to throw out the garbage," said Father Sinclair Oubre, a chaplain to seafarers in Port Arthur and president of the North American Maritime Ministry Association. "The old tonnage stays on the market, and there are some hungry people in the world who can be brought in to man it."
Two years ago, the U.S. Coast Guard --already engaged in the inspection of tankers and cruise ships -- responded to an ominous trend: the recurrent appearance at American ports of dangerously deficient, foreign-flag container and bulk-cargo ships.
Borrowing a page from its European counterparts, the Coast Guard stepped up a ship inspection and detention program known as port-state control. Foreign ships are prioritized for boarding under a point system -- those with disreputable flags or owners or histories of trouble get the most points -- and may be detained if they are found to be unsafe.
More than one-third of the detentions since 1994 have come in the Coast Guard's 8th District, which includes Houston and Galveston and stretches from the panhandle of Florida on the east to Brownsville on the west. These ships represent, at the very least, hazards to their crews; on occasion they represent public hazards as well.
In August 1995, for example, the Coast Guard in Houston boarded the New Empress, a Liberian-flag tanker, and found that it was illegally carrying highly explosive ethyl alcohol. Thick with vapor, the ship was detained and gingerly unloaded.
Coast Guard officials were so incensed by the egregious breach of safety -- not only for the 30-man crew but also for the Port of Houston -- that they took the case to the U.S. attorney, who filed criminal charges against the ship's Greek captain. He remains a fugitive.
Liberia, as it happens, is not even on the Coast Guard's "flag list," which identifies the countries whose fleets have above-average detention rates. At the top of the current list are the Cape Verde Islands, followed by Peru, Ukraine, Honduras and Romania. In all, 24 nations -- among them Panama, which has the world's largest fleet -- received black marks that will lead to increased inspections.
To be sure, there are many conscientious ship owners. It is not difficult to find vessels as clean as hospitals, vessels whose meticulously trained crews are well-paid and treated with dignity. Those in the tanker business point out that99.98 percent of the world's oil is moved in an average yearwithout being spilled.
Even the most prominent and scrupulous owners, however, acknowledge that their industry, which transports nearly 5 billion tons of cargo a year in some 80,000 vessels, has a serious image problem.
Richard du Moulin, chairman and chief executive officer of Marine Transport Lines of Weehawken, N.J., and freshly installed chairman of Intertanko, an Oslo-based trade association of independent tanker owners, addressed this subject at the Connecticut Maritime Association's annual meeting last March.
"Yes," du Moulin said, "shipping has a lousy image -- tankers spilling oil, owners hiding behind single-purpose companies established in Third World countries (and) operating rust buckets, cruise ships stranding passengers, bulkers disappearing without a trace, barges going aground off the beaches of Puerto Rico and Rhode Island; the list could go on. Shipping appears as the black sheep of the international business community -- worse than the low-profile toxic-waste dumpers or Mafia garbage cartels."
Du Moulin went on to say that this perception is "clearly unfair," and urged his colleagues to help change it.
The Chronicle's study, however, suggests that shipping's reputation is well-deserved.
The industry is at once omnipresent and invisible, audacious and secretive. Bob Bea, a professor of civil engineering and naval architecture at the University of California at Berkeley, likens it to a "dysfunctional family. You look at it and say, `God, that's stupid.' "
It is indispensable, but when it slips, it slips badly, spilling crude off the coast of Wales or dumping ferry passengers into the Baltic.
Such high-profile incidents aren't the worst of it. Largely out of public view are chronic conditions that cause death, injury and other misery among mariners and threaten the world's waters. The loss of eight foreign sailors in the Gulf of Mexico arouses less interest than oiled birds in the North Sea.
"What the U.S. Coast Guard and the other port-state control people are doing is closing the barn door after the horse has bolted. They're having to deal with ships that never should have set sail in the state they're in," said David Cockroft,secretary-general of the London-based International Transport Workers Federation, made up of 400 trade unions in 100 countries.
Since 1948 the ITF has led a strident campaign against open ship registries, or "flags of convenience." These are primarily developing nations, such as Belizeand Honduras, that operate registries with questionable safety standards and are ardently anti-union. They lure owners from traditional registries -- the United States, Britain -- with low fees, modest or no taxes and minimal regulation. As a rule, wages for seafarers working under such flags are paltry by Western standards but high enough to entice people from, say, India or the Philippines.
"There's an almost infinite supply of labor," Cockroft said. "The owners will pay what they think they can get away with. Any attempt by the flag to tighten up standards too much will result in a loss of market share to a less rigorous registry."
In the course of its inquiry, the Chronicle encountered striking contrasts: a Cypriot-flag, bulk-cargo ship that was spotless and a Romanian-flag bulker that was squalid; Filipino sailors who had not been paid in months and a Florida ship financier with a $200 million check in his pocket; owners who spoke candidly and owners who would not speak at all.
Thousands of pages of inspection and research documents were reviewed, hundreds of interviews conducted in cities such as Manila, London, Hong Kong, Panama City, Miami, San Francisco and Houston. Among the findings:
· The worldwide death toll among merchant seafarers, as tallied by the well-regarded Institute of London Underwriters (ILU), is profoundly underreported because only losses of vessels over 500 gross tons are documented. Detlef Nielsen, a senior research associate at the International Research Centre for Seafarers Safety and Occupational Health at the University of Wales, has found that Japan, for example, lost 121 sailors from 1990 through 1994; the ILU figure was 20. Similarly, the ILU reported five Americans dead or missing from 1992 through 1994; the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics says that 165 died during this period.
· For an unprincipled owner, there may be a strong economic incentive to run a substandard ship. A new report by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) in Paris states that the costs of operating two bulkers of identical age, size and crew makeup could swing from a "ceiling" of $7,500 a day to a "floor" of $2,750 a day. This amounts to an annual gap of $1.7 million between a first-rate ship and a truly awful one. An owner who followed only the minimum international safety and pollution standards still would spend nearly $200,000 a year more than an owner who disregarded all the rules and merely kept a vessel afloat.
The temptation to do the latter is especially great today, according to the OECD, because of rising costs, excess capacity in some sectors and feeble enforcement. "Given the present legal framework," the report says, "penalties applied to substandard vessels are, if they exist at all, relatively low compared to the advantages obtained from non-observance of international rules and standards."
· Although some foreign-flag vessels --notably, cruise ships -- carry American passengers, the National Transportation Safety Board's ability to investigate an accident on such vessels can be severely limited unless the accident occurs in U.S. territorial waters (up to three miles offshore). The NTSB, which can investigate an accident involving a U.S.-flag vessel anywhere in the world, has met with resistance from Carnival Cruise Lines and other owners of foreign-flag ships when it has sought to determine the causes of near-catastrophic fires and collisions.
The London-based International Maritime Organization, an arm of the United Nations, is developing a protocol for accident investigations that will apply to all the world's waters. Marjorie Murtagh, chief of the NTSB's Marine Division, is following the process with some trepidation.
"If the protocol were in any way to restrict our authority within (U.S.) territorial waters, we'd obviously be concerned," Murtagh said. "We are not the U.S. representative at the IMO; the Coast Guard is. We don't have a direct voice in the development of that protocol."
· With the help of river pilots, Coast Guard officials in New Orleans have documented a succession of power and steering failures and engine irregularities on deep-draft, mainly foreign-flag vessels in the lower Mississippi River. There were at least 212 such incidents on a 235-mile segment of the river between Oct. 27, 1994 and April 30 of this year.
Power and steering failures, in particular, can be quite serious. On March 27, for example, the Liberian-flag oil tanker Sanko Quest suddenly veered off course on Mile 75 of the Mississippi, near Belle Chasse, La.
"Her steering just went hard left and she ended up going through an anchorage, glancing off a vessel and grounding on the western bank," said Coast Guard Lt. Verne Gifford. There were no injuries or spills, but it was an alarmingly close call.
To Coast Guard Capt. Gordon Marsh, these incidents suggest that the ships' operators "are not doing the required prearrival tests and inspections before they are boarded by a pilot at Southwest Pass and make the transit up the 90 miles to New Orleans. Our concern is explosions or pollution."
· The Coast Guard, America's last line of defense against unsafe foreign ships and other maritime threats, is being squeezed by budget cuts.
Already at its lowest staffing level since 1967, the agency stands to lose up to 1,000 positions next year under a government "streamlining" plan aimed at eliminating 4,000 jobs by 1998.
A greater amount of industry self-regulation is the likely result, and the Coast Guard's limited experience with this concept has not been encouraging.
Since 1989, owners of the nation's 3,800 fixed, offshore oil platforms have been allowed to perform their own annual safety inspections and send reports to the Coast Guard, with the understanding that the agency would perform spot checks.
A recent audit by the U.S. Department of Transportation's inspector general found, however, that the downsized Coast Guard fell short of its goal for spot checks and that some platform owners did not submit the required reports.
In addition, one of the Coast Guard's major initiatives -- a proposed $200 million to $300 million upgrading and installation of vessel traffic controlsystems in Houston and 16 other busy U.S. ports -- is in jeopardy. The agency has asked Congress for $6 million to keep the program alive, but in July the House decided that no expenditure was warranted. The Senate has since restored $5.5 million, and the matter must be taken up by a conference committee.
· After decades of dutifully searching for structural and mechanical causes of maritime accidents, regulators and researchers are looking more closely at the people operating the vessels.
Although immense bulkers have broken apart in recent years, officials with the IMO, the Coast Guard and other bodies now believe that more than 80 percent of all accidents are caused by human error, derived from poor training, miscommunication or repressive corporate cultures. In an average year, said Coast Guard Rear Adm. James Card, the United States alone records 170 marine-related deaths, 1,600 injuries and oil and chemical spills totaling 3 million gallons, at a cost of more than $1.5 billion. (The death and injury numbers include some recreational accidents.)
Karlene Roberts, a professor of industrial psychology at the University of California's Haas School of Business, and colleague Bea, the engineering professor, have analyzed the events leading to some 800 maritime accidents. "Usually," Roberts said, "there are plenty of wake-up calls" prior to such accidents -- near-misses, job cuts, mandates from headquarters to defer maintenance.
Many companies, shipping and otherwise, "want you to be safe," Bea said, "but you'd damned well better not shut down production."
He praises firms such as San Francisco-based Chevron Shipping Co., which has taken the "human factors" theme to heart and instituted strong training and self-assessment programs; the result has been an extremely low spill rate among Chevron's tanker fleet.
· Untold numbers of seafarers or would-be seafarers around the world are forced to pay middlemen hundreds of dollars apiece in bribes to get jobs on ships. The practice violates international law and the laws of some nations.
In former Soviet bloc nations, capitalism has been a blow instead of a boon to seafarers, who pay manning agents a month's wages or more for jobs they got for free under communist regimes.
The U.N.'s International Labor Organization has consistently condemned the practice, but it persists because of the huge number of people in impoverished nations seeking employment.
· Many Filipino seafarers who work on Miami- and Caribbean-based cruise ships have been cheated out of pay and forced to spend more time abroad than they agreed to under contracts approved by their own government.
One Miami firm that supplies workers for five cruise lines and for years has failed to pay cruise workers properly changed its practices after Chronicle inquiries to officials with the company and the Philippinegovernment.
Overwork on these ships is pervasive. "A typical seaman on a typical cruise ship works seven days a week, anywhere from 12 to 16 hours a day," said William Huggett, one of a number of Miami attorneys who represent seafarers in injury claims against cruise lines. "You don't have to be a doctor to know your body's not built for that."
Huggett and others maintain that long hours contribute to many crew injuries and may threaten passenger safety during emergencies.
Rick Boggs, 49, of Battle Ground, Wash., views such phenomena from an unusual perspective. He is a seafarer on U.S.-flag ships, a former airline pilot and a former inspector for the Washington State Office of Marine Safety.
He does not hide his contempt for unsafe foreign vessels and his disillusionment with the Coast Guard, which, he suspects, is reluctant to disrupt commerce. Ports, after all, are big business, and competition among them is fierce.
"I'm standing right now in the largest grain-exporting port in the United States," Boggs said by cellular phone from the tanker Prince William Sound as it prepared to leave Portland, Ore., for Alaska, "and there might be two American ships a year that take grain out of here. It's got to be 99 percent foreign ships." These ships, Boggs said, "have tremendous industry support, and there's tremendous political pressure on the Coast Guard not to work too hard at making them conform to the same standards as U.S.-flag ships. If we allowed foreign aircraft to come into this country in the same condition we allow ships to come into this country, you wouldn't be able to hear over the uproar."


"Those who desire to give up Freedom in order to gain security, will not have, nor do they deserve, either one." - Benjamin Franklin
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Old 10-04-2006, 17:10   #2
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Part two of eleven.

From backwaters to major ports, seafarers are
abandoned with no pay and only promises from owners


CEBU CITY, Philippines --It was a sunny April day on this lush island, but it was dark and suffocating aboard the Safina E Ismail 2.
The 42 Pakistani seafarers gathered in the grimy dining area of the stranded cargo ship were eager to vent their bitterness.
"They say it is terrible, horrifying," said Sultin Mahmoud, 39, translating his shipmates' words. "It's the worst conditions they ever had."
"I'm working since 1961," said John Ignasis, 58, of Karachi. "Never before I see a ship like this."
Their contracts expired months earlier. They'd been paid only small portions of their salaries since. The Karachi-based owners sent promises, but no repair money or plane tickets home.
It had been about four months since the rust-eaten ship -- its myriad mechanical problems only worsened by a typhoon battering -- was towed into Cebu's picturesque natural harbor on Dec. 22, 1995.
For a time, the crew had only rainwater to drink. They'd lived mostly on rice and bread.
The only light on the 20-year-old ship this day came from a handful of dull bulbs, strung down the dark interior companionways and rigged to a struggling, small generator.
A cargo of fertilizer destined for a coconut plantation sat undelivered in holds. Main generators were broken down. The ship's engine was torn apart, and replacement parts were lacking. The engine room itself was pitch-black.
The galley in which the crew's meager meals were prepared was even grimier than the eating area. The heat in Cebu, just 10 degrees off the equator, was relentless.
"My mind is not working,"Ignasis said, pounding the palm of his right hand against the side of his head.
"It's driving us crazy," said Mahmoud, a 20-year seafaring veteran who also hails from Karachi, the Pakistani capital.
The situation aboard the Safine E Ismail 2 may seem crazy to people outside the global shipping industry.
But it is not uncommon.
All over the world, seafarers are stranded in miserable conditions when shipowners grow cash-poor or go broke. Sometimes, owners simply abandon ships that become too costly to keep up, fix or staff.
The Safine E Ismail 2, in fact, was still stranded in Cebu by mid-summer.
Although more common in Pacific Rim, Asian and African ports, such incidents aren't limited to the Third World.
In May, theRussian-flag vessel Kostroma was stranded in the Port of Houston. Its crew had not been paid for three months.
The Kostroma was owned by Baltic Shipping Co., a private company formed after the breakup of the Soviet Union. At least 30 of the company's vessels have been stranded in ports around the world since 1994. The company foundered after encountering numerous financial troubles and rolling up nearly $300 million in debt.
The ship was detained by creditors under Houston federal court order.
Cut off from families back home, the 24-member Kostroma crew waited, not knowing who would buy the ship or whether they would quickly be replaced by Filipinos, Sri Lankans or even other Russians willing to work for far less than they.
And indeed, the crew was replaced by another from Russia in June when Ordina Ship Management Ltd. bought the vessel and changed its name to Aroma.
Although they lost their jobs, the Kostroma's crew members were safe and well-fed during their stay in Houston. They even had air conditioning.
But often, troubled ships are uncomfortable in port and unsafe at sea.
One such ship limped into the Port of Los Angeles Feb. 21.
The 430-foot, 15-year-old Romanian ship Giurgiu was on its way from Peru to China with a load of volatile fish meal and a crew of 28 Romanians.
Surrounded by well-kept, modern container ships, the decrepit Giurgiu quickly drew U.S. Coast Guard attention.
"It's got to be the worst in living conditions that I have come across, without a doubt,"Coast Guard Ensign Matt Nickell said. "The crew was in such a state they were coming to us saying they didn't want to sail."
Cockroaches and other insects infested the Giurgiu, even crawling around in crew bunks.
Food was scarce and mostly rotten.
"The bread was so hard you could have thrown it against the wall and it would break," said Lt. Mark Cunningham, Coast Guard port safety chief.
Crew members said they hadn't been paid in months.
Rainwater flowed through holes rusted in the deck, wetting down crew cabins and the galley. Pipes all over the ship were rusted through.
A defective ventilation network rendered useless a system designed to snuff engine room fires.
Exposed wiring posed additional fire hazards.
And though its four holds were full of fish meal that could smolder and burn if not kept at the right temperature, the ship carried only enough fire suppressant to smother a fire in a single hold.
Sewage drained into the harbor.
The ship lacked a certificate of financial responsibility, a bond to guarantee cleanup costs for oil spills and other accidents in U.S. waters.
The service generators, which run everything on the ship, were inoperable.
The Coast Guard detained the Giurgiu, ordering repairs before it could sail.
The vessel drew the attention of port chaplains and of the International Transport Workers Federation, or ITF, a London-based organization of transportation unions. They petitioned the owners through diplomatic and other channels to improve sanitation and living conditions aboard and provide medical care for crewmen.
Crewmen said they feared death if forced to sail to China.
"It's not dangerous," said crewman Hiliti Viorl, 39, a 15-year seaman. "It's lethal."
"I'm scared and I want to go home," said motorman Marian Ionescu, 36.
In 1994, Ionescu survived the sinking in the Aegean Sea of another vessel, the 4,000-ton Falticeni. Four of the ship's 20 crew members died.
Self Invest Maritime SRL, a Romanian firm that owns the Giurgiu, blamed the ship's condition on poor crew maintenance and on previous management.
Company spokesman Antony Constantin denied Giurgui crewmen's claims that other vessels in Self Invest's fleet are substandard. Constantin, a former seaman and the Giurgiu's home office operations engineer, also said the crew's families received their pay regularly. It is common in the industry for a portion of seafarers' pay to go directly to their families.
He acknowledged, however, that part of the pay due onboard was delayed.
The Los Angeles repairs cost $81,000, Constantin said. More than $60,000 of that was paid by the ship's New York charterer, Sunkyong America Inc. Some seamen, including one with broken ribs and another with a hernia, did get to go home.
The Giurgiu sailed March 15. It arrived April 10 offshore Hawaii, where state officials denied entrance to Honolulu's harbor. On June 3, after another $70,000 in repairs, the Giurgiu sailed for Qingdao, China.
Self Invest arranged payment of the Hawaii expenses, said Honolulu shipping agent Skip Howard.
The overdue maintenance, danger and delayed pay aboard the Giurgiu are familiar to thousands of workers who man similar ships around the world.
But despite the difficulties, many sailors are driven to sea by poverty and unemployment in their homelands.
Most are from poor Third World countries, and some commit months of sea wages to job brokers, or "manning agents,"in their desperation to get jobs.
In the Tagalog language of the Philippines -- home to 20 percent of the world's merchant seafarers -- the payments are called lagay, or grease money.
Under international labor conventions, manning agents are supposed to be paid by owners, not employees.
And while bribery has dropped off in the Philippines in recent years, it still occurs, and it thrives in other nations.
"It seems to be the norm in the former Soviet Union that seafarers who want to work on foreign vessels are having to pay for their jobs," said Doug Stephenson, director of New York's Center for Seafarers' Rights, part of the 158-year-old Seamen's Church Institute of New York and New Jersey.
Georgian seafarers told institute chaplains in May that they had to put up the equivalent of a month's pay to a manning agency to get a job, said Stephenson.
Whole families in poor nations often struggle to raise the fees to get one relative a shipping job. Once they get the coveted jobs, seamen will endure harsh conditions and treatment to keep them. If they quit, they have to pay their own fares home. So they become easy targets for abuse.
"There is usually some concern about whether they will be fired for standing up for their rights and, if they do, whether they will ever get a job again," Stephenson said.
A seafarer often carries a "seaman's book," a record of his performance. If a captain marks him down or fires him as a troublemaker, the record can end his career and doom him to lifelong poverty.
Filipino seafarers said that many of Manila's 260 manning agencies blacklist outspoken seafarers. Manning agencies deny the charge.
Non-union seafarers in particular fear firing if they complain, acknowledged Felicissimo Joson, who heads the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration, or POEA, through which 365,000 Filipinos hold seamen's registration certificates.
Backing from the ITF or other foreign unions sometimes gives Filipinos courage to pursue complaints, he said.
The largest seafarers' union for Filipinos is the Associated Marine Officers' and Seamen's Union of the Philippines, or AMOSUP, which claims about 55,000 members. President Gregorio S. Oca said his members usually don't involve the POEA in disputes with employers.
Critics say POEA drags its feet on complaints and has a huge backlog of cases.
Indeed, of 863 cases filed last year, only 107 were resolved by year's end, said Lorna Fajardo, the POEA's director of pre-employment services, in a written statement.
About 80 of the largest Manila manning agencies have formed the Filipino Association for Mariners' Employment, or FAME, to try to improve their images.
"We want discipline within this industry,"said Eduardo U. Manese, chief operating officer of Magsaysay Lines Inc. & Affiliates, which manages a labor pool of 12,000 and keeps about 8,800 seafarers working on 260 ships. "We have our own standards and ethics."
Though it comprises fewer than a third of Philippine manning agencies, FAME recruits about 80 percent of Filipino seamen. Manese said FAME members urge their client seamen to report problems with pay or work contracts.
Magsaysay serves mainly major shipping firms. It receives about $4 million a month in seafarers' pay for transfer to Filipino families. On the ground floor of its Manila office building, Magsaysay operates a busy center to help seafarers' families when domestic or other problems occur.
The most common complaints involve wages.
"It's a minority of shipowners that do not pay the seafarers according to their contracts, but it's a significant minority," said Stephenson of the Center for Seafarers' Rights -- which provides free legal advice to seafarers.
Stephenson, a former U.S. Coast Guard attorney, is one of two center lawyers who educate seafarers about their rights, help settle disputes between seafarers and shipowners, refer seafarers to private attorneys and work to toughen international maritime laws.
In 1995, the center opened 214 cases, up from 182 in 1994.
"The figures quite clearly do not reflect all the problems that are out there," said Stephenson. "It reflects only the problems of the people who take the time and have the courage to ask for help."
If not contacted directly by mariners, the Center usually hears first about seafarers' problems from port chaplains around the world. In every major port and most minor ports, clergy of various denominations operate full-time ministries that include visiting as many ships as possible.
Joson of POEA said his government estimates there are about 1.3 million seafarers working worldwide at any given time.
Each day, hundreds of Filipinos line up at Manila's drab POEA building. They seek jobs as seafarers or domestic helpers overseas. They hope to make many times more than domestic laborers, who earn perhaps $6 a day.
In Manila, construction laborers sleep five or six nights a week on job sites, cooking over campfires. They can't afford to commute. Pegged at 8 million in 1990, metropolitan Manila's population includes 2 million squatters.
Most POEA applicants come from the huge shantytowns that lace Metro Manila or from equally poor provinces in the 7,000-island nation.
In 1994, 165,000 Filipinos got work at sea.
Many bypass the POEA, illegally obtaining jobs in Singapore and other ports, Joson said.
Because Filipinos form a huge part of the work force, port chaplains in the U.S. and other countries hear frequent pleas for help from them.
Even ship captains, or masters, are not immune.
In January, Capt. Reynaldo Bautista of Manila turned to port chaplains in Bangkok when his pay and that of his 20-member Filipino crew quit coming from his ship's new charterers in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. At the same time, a manning agency stopped delivering monthly allotments due the families of Bautista and some of his crew in the Philippines.
Bautista's wife, Nora, had to borrow money from a sister to cover costs of a hospital stay. Other crew members' families went begging as well, Bautista said.
Bautista said his job already had been threatened when he complained of being allowed only $3 a day per crewman for food.
He was concerned that his crew would think he was skimming the food money -- a practice reported on many ships.
He and his crew got paid only after intervention by the Anglican Church-related Missions to Seamen, the director of Thailand's National Catholic Commission for Seafarers and the Center for Seafarers' Rights. Disgusted, Bautista resigned and returned to Manila to seek a new command.
The Bangkok clergy informed the Center for Seafarers' Rights about Bautista's case. Stephenson immediately informed the POEA. The POEA failed to respond until March, long after the problem was solved.
Perhaps the longest-running seafarers' wage dispute in Philippine history began in St. Lucia, Virgin Islands, in January 1989, when nine Filipinos were accused of refusing to work the required overtime on the cargo ship Mt. Cabrite.
The seamen were fired and sent home. They demanded pay for the remaining seven months of their contracts, but the Mt. Cabrite's operators and the Manila manning agency Fil-Pride Shipping Co. Inc. refused.
Fil-Pride urged the POEA to deny the pay, officially blacklist the seamen and bar them from jobs at sea. Fil-Pride also demanded the seafarers repay $15,700 it cost to send them home, $10,000 it cost to replace them, and $100,000 in damages and attorneys fees.
The total disputed pay was only $32,758, and POEA ruled in the sailors' favor in April 1992. But Fil-Pride appealed to the National Labor Relations Commission, losing there in March of 1995, then to the Philippine Supreme Court, which ruled against Fil-Pride last August.
Finally, on June 14 of this year -- two weeks after an inquiry by the Chronicle --POEA officials informed Manila attorney Joseph Capuyan that an order was in the works to pay the sailors.
"One of the nine seamen involved in this has already died," Capuyan said. "We filed a motion to enforce judgment in August 1995 and the POEA just sat on it."
"They ignore it," Rustico del Rosario, 49, the Cabrite's former boatswain, said of the POEA. "Instead of protecting us, they are sided with the principals. They are afraid of the principals."
The charge is a familiar one to POEA officials.
"That's not what the manning agents in Manila say," said the POEA's Fajardo. "They're always complaining that they're losing their cases."
Under new law, seamen's complaints go directly to the labor commission. The POEA is still charged with overseeing the manning industry.
The Mt. Cabrite seamen said they pursued the case so long to send a message to manning agents and shipowners.
"We want to give a lesson to the people at Fil-Pride," said del Rosario.
"We do this because we don't want that other seamen will suffer," said machinist Allan Ibabao, 39.
Many advocates fear that seafarers will continue to suffer, with pay and working conditions growing worse as new labor pools open up. In recent years, many seafarers from the former Soviet bloc countries and China have entered the world market. Many are working for even less than Filipinos, who as ordinary seamen can be paid as little as $286 a month in base pay under Philippine law.
Many South and Central Americans and Africans are working for less than Filipinos.
One estimate put the number of Chinese seafarers at more than 300,000.
As their English improves, Eastern Europeans and Chinese may take jobs held by Filipinos and other Third World mariners.
"In the Philippines and India the number of qualified, well-trained personnel that the international industry wants is rapidly diminishing. We think that China is an obvious next source," said Michael Farlie, director of the Hong Kong Shipowners Association, whose members operate 1,100 ships under more than 34 flags.
Indeed, the association is working with Chinese maritime academies to create training programs that will meet tougher requirements under the revised Convention on Standards of Training, Certification and Watchkeeping for Seafarers. The new standards, adopted by the International Maritime Organization in 1995, are set to take effect over the next few years.
One major worldwide manpower study suggests the new standards will put many officers and seamen out of jobs unless they get more training.
"I tend to think that while you may have fluctuations right now, the new STCW holds promise in that by raising the requirements and standards for seafarers, shipowners will have to hire really well-qualified professional seafarers," said Stephenson. "As you have better certifications and qualifications, hopefully it will tend to raise the wages, particularly in conjunction with good, solid trade union activity."
In the Philippines, preliminary studies have shown that few maritime training schools come close to meeting the new standards. Industry and government authorities are scrambling to find ways to maintain the nation's share of the world's shipping jobs.
Meanwhile, seafarers and their families live with the fears and insecurities that have plagued seamen for centuries. They worry that some minor incident -- a disagreement with a manning agent or a dispute with a ship officer -- will cut off the incomes that can vault them out of grinding poverty into the middle classes of their homelands. "Our husbands are working professionally but they are working casually," said Alice Lamigo, wife of a retired Filipino ship captain and a founder of the Seamen's Wives Association of the Philippines Inc. "After each contract, our husbands are jobless. Between assignments, our husbands are nobodies, with no benefits from the employers or the government."


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Old 10-04-2006, 19:15   #3
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Yes. Sad but true, about the foreign flagged shipping vessels!!

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Old 11-04-2006, 16:45   #5
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Danger Aboard

Part Three of Eleven.
When seafarers are injured on the job, they face medical and legal complications

BATANGAS PROVINCE, Philippines -- Many people dream of living in a place like the remote seaside fishing hamlet that Feliciano Lejano calls home.

Azure skies, turquoise water, balmy weather, quaint fishing boats and a little house set against a backdrop of tropical forest. Just the place to spend the rest of a life.

But for Lejano, 50, this idyllic setting near Batangas City south of Manila is a place of pain and despair. Instead of walking the beach or fishing daily, the disabled former seafarer spends a lot of time in bed, wondering what will become of him in years ahead.

He needs help in almost everything. He uses a walker to move around, but it exhausts him. Whole minutes pass before one foot follows the other.

Lejano worked more than two decades as a seaman for the same company. But he suffered a 30-foot fall on a ship five years ago. He spent 11 months in hospitals.

Now Lejano is fighting his former employers in a Louisiana court for money to support himself and his wife, Melinda, the rest of their lives. Among other things, attorneys say a simple safety harness would have prevented Lejano's injuries.

Lejano's case illustrates not only the dangers ofsea life but the treacherous legal straits seafarers must navigate after they are injured or permanently disabled.

"After 22 years with the company, they left me to the flies," Lejano said, literally batting at flies zooming around his head. "I hope God doesn't forget me."
Lejano's seafaring career ended at 1:35 p.m. on Nov. 7, 1991, aboard the Norwegian freighter Bandak.

Lejano insists he told the boatswain who ordered him onto a 13.5-inch-wide scaffold that the ropes upon which it hung were rotten and dangerous. But the order stood. Lejano rose off the Bandak's deck to clean the metal plates under the ship's bridge.

The ropes broke. Lejano crashed to the deck, suffering paralyzing leg, arm and brain injuries. Hours later, a U.S. Coast Guard helicopter shuttled him to Miami's Jackson Memorial Hospital.

Three months later, Lejano was moved to Manila's Doctors' Hospital. He stayed until Oct. 8, 1992.

Lejano later received partial settlement of $40,000 from the Bandak's Norwegian insurers. He used part to buy the house he occupies with his wife and 16-year-old Anailyn, the youngest of four daughters. While he still could win a large damage award in the American court or receive a settlement, Lejano said he's already had to borrow from his wife's relatives while the case drags on.

Lejano gazed at the large picture of Jesus above his bed.

"I sit here and wish to get better," he said. "I wish I could still go out to sea."

"Because of the accident, Mr. Lejano mentally is more of a child than a man," said Pedro Linsangan, Lejano's Manila attorney. "His behavior, his decisions are those of a child who cannot make good decisions himself.

"Physically, I look at him as a totally devastated man," said Linsangan.

Shipping company lawyers, a physician and psychiatrist examined Lejano last year, but the visits did not lead to a settlement.

The case and others like it pit seafarers and their lawyers against shipping interests and theirs. Each side casts the other as greedy and unscrupulous.

Rich ship owners view seamen as expendable and don't care about their health or welfare, says one faction. Ambulance-chasing lawyers take advantage of seafarers, using U.S. courts to extort excessive injury settlements from shipowners, the other faction insists.

Seafarers' advocates maintain that poor safety practices and unsafe ships make a seaman's job far more hazardous than many dangerous shore-side jobs.

"Seafarers work under very hazardous conditions," said Doug Stephenson, who runs New York's Center for Seafarers' Rights. "They get sick or injured a lot. Working around chemicals is pretty dangerous, for instance. And we've had cases where seafarers have been ordered to go into tanks to clean them and been overcome by fumes. Some even died."

While Lejano received extensive treatment in the United States, many seafarers contend that employers try to avoid necessary medical expenses.

"We get cases of sick and injured seafarers who are sent home and not provided follow-up care," said Stephenson, a former Coast Guard lawyer whose office intercedes for seafarers but does not represent them in courts. "We get a lot of cases where seafarers are denied medical care simply because the ship's officers say seafarers are malingering.

"That's what they'll say, but in reality, I think it's to avoid the expense of sending someone to the doctor who's not on fire or bleeding. It tends to be the smaller-type illnesses or injuries that need a doctor's care that are the big problem."

In one recent case, a chemical tanker crewman complained of pain in his side after a fall aboard his ship in New York harbor. Over the captain's objections, Stephenson's organization got the man to a doctor, who found two broken ribs.

"Some injuries may not necessarily be life-threatening, but they could very well jeopardize a livelihood," said Stephenson. "It could be a small cut on the hand or chemical burns that they'll try to just treat on the ship."

Shipping companies particularly want to keep injured or ill seafarers out of expensive American hospitals. The owners say they try to keep costs down and blame lawyers for seeking unreasonable compensation in order to collect lucrative fees.

A case in point is that of Filipino Tomas Reyes Cabahug Jr., who was injured Dec. 8 when a gangway on the cargo ship Niki collapsed at a dock in Darrow, La. Cabahug fell and crushed his face.

The fall smashed teeth, caused five jaw fractures, splintered eye sockets and broke his sternum loose. Still, Cabahug was lucky.

"His face really acted as a shock absorber, preventing any really serious neurologicalinjury," said Dr. Marshall D. Harrison, a facial surgeon.

A helicopter took Cabahug to Baton Rouge's Our Lady of the Lake Medical Center. Doctors postponed major repairs until his condition stabilized.

But Harrison said James Garza, hired by the shipping company to arrange Cabahug's treatment, immediately wanted to move him to New Orleans' Medical Center of Louisiana, a Louisiana State University teaching facility known as Charity Hospital.

"Once we had done this initial surgery and had him in the surgical intensive care unit, there was a push by Mr. Garza to transfer him down to Charity Hospital in New Orleans under the guise that he would get better care there," said Harrison, a former resident at Houston's University of Texas Health Sciences Center. "That is very much debatable since it's a resident training program just like I went through in Houston. That sounded kind of suspicious to all of us right off the bat.

"His second reason was that Tomas would be close to an international airport so that when he was ready to travel, he could just hop a plane and be gone. I could read between the lines."

Within days, surgical intensive care nurses called security officers when Garza tried to get Cabahug, still breathing through a trachial tube, to sign some papers. Garza was asked to leave, nurses reported.

Garza, owner of Marine and Industrial Health Care Services Inc. in Metairie, La., declined comment.

New Orleans attorney Rob Fisher, who represents the Niki's owners, said Garza needed Cabahug's signature to release medical records to a surgeon at St. Luke's Hospital in Manila.

He also said the company wanted to move Cabahug to New Orleans. But the transfer had been put on hold at the request of a relative, Fisher said, and by the time it was approved two days later the reserved hospital bed in New Orleans was unavailable.

On Dec. 16, physicians decided Cabahug needed more work. Harrison said such injuries should be repaired within about two weeks or the shattered facial structure starts to "solidify."

Surgeons worked eight hours on Cabahug's face on Sunday, Dec. 17. Garza telephoned Monday.

"He was just as irate as all get out, asking me how I dared to operate on this guy without his permission and all this other garbage," said Harrison. "I told him I tried to get hold of him over the weekend but couldn't find him."

Fisher contended that if James Garza was angry, it was because his every move was being dogged by Baton Rouge lawyer Richard J. "Jerry" Dodson, representing Cabahug.

"Dodson may tell you we tried to kidnap Mr. Cabahug and magically transport him to Manila," said Fisher. "Nothing is further from the truth."

But on Jan. 4, Garza had reservations for Cabahug and a nurse escort to fly to Manila before Harrison signed Cabahug's hospital discharge orders, said Dodson's partner, David Vidrine.

"We found out about this when Tomas had a nurse call to tell us he was frightened out of his mind," said Vidrine.

Dodson and other attorneys filed suit in an Ascension Parish, La., court seeking unspecified damages for Cabahug. The lawyers prevented Cabahug's return to Manila, claiming he was not in shape to travel and needed more care. He is staying with a Baton Rouge family.

Not surprisingly, Fisher contends that Dodson hopes to profit from the case, while Dodson says it's more often the shipping companies that focus on the bottom line.

In June, Fisher asked the hospital's lawyers to settle for 70 percent payment, according to court documents.

In a letter to hospital attorneys, Fisher said the Niki's insurers planned to carry the case to the Louisiana Supreme Court if necessary, and that the case could drag on for months or years and might even be transferred to Greece or the Philippines.

"We are offering your client an opportunity to get paid now, at a discount, rather than waiting an eternity or risk losing their entire lien," Fisher told hospital lawyers.

Four days before an Aug. 12 court hearing on Dodson's motion for a summary judgment to force payment, the Niki's insurers paid about $100,000 in bills, Dodson said, but other bills are still outstanding.

Fisher contended that any delays resulted from administrative requirements and normal negotiations.

Harrison, the physician, said the delay in payment of his fees was not the reason for his anger about the case.

"I think it was a horrible way this seaman was treated," said Harrison. "It's a horrible way the nurses, myself and my office business manager were treated."

The insurance claims adjuster in the case, Houston's Thomas Miller (Americas), acknowledges battling hospitals over seamen's bills.

"Typically, we are successful in getting medical bills reduced as much as 50 percent," said adjuster Joseph O'Connor. "That shows you clearly that there is an inflation factor or an overbilling, as it were, with U.S. health care facilities."

Companies do try to send injured seafarers home quickly, but money isn't the driving factor, O'Connor insisted.

He said injured people are better off at home with family, dealing with doctors and nurses who speak the same language.

"From a mental standpoint, it's one of our first concerns," said O'Connor.

He acknowledged that shipowners do their best to avoid U.S. courts.

"When crew members are hurt here, oftentimes they retain an attorney, the facts of the case become slanted and we end up having to deal with a lawsuit."

The Philippines offers quality medical care and adequate compensation, O'Connor said, though other countries might not.

"There are people going home and not receiving the same standard of medical care and not being paid the wages that someone over here makes," said O'Connor. "But that's a fact of life, not the fault of the shipowner."

Shipping interests are vexed that seafarers can maintain lawsuits in Louisiana's state courts so easily. And that ease is why Dodson is often involved in the most controversial cases.

Another such case surfaced in June.

On June 1, aboard the Liberian-flag cargo ship Ashley, Filipino Chief Engineer Abner Gaitano suffered second- and third-degree burns on his face, left hand and legs when hydraulic fluid caught fire.

The vessel, laden with British steel bound for Mobile, Ala., had passed the Azores. Greek captain Georgios Pavios, Gaitano, and 28 other Filipinos were aboard.

"Some of my men asked the captain to contact a medical team to ask what would be their suggestion," Gaitano said. "He keep saying, `No need. No need.' "

Gaitano, 48, second in command, got penicillin and hydrogen peroxide for his wounds. He used alcohol and hot water to clean the burns himself.

By the time the Ashley reached Mobile June 12, the wound was oozing pus. The owner's agent and an immigration official insisted Gaitano see a doctor immediately.

He got fresh bandages at a clinic there. The next day, he flew to Manila alone and was met by his wife, Lourdes -- who didn't learn of his injury until a week after the accident, when a friend told her that a another engineer was sent to the Ashley.

She called Greece's Byzantine Maritime Corp., the Ashley's owner. A BMC official told her that Pavios reported that her husband suffered "slight" burns, none to his face.

But his leg wound was severe enough that he received a skin graft at Manila Metropolitan Hospital.

He went home July 1 to Iloilo City, about an hour's flight from Manila.

In 28 years, Gaitano said, no captain had treated him so badly. The episode deeply disturbed most of the Ashley's crew, he said.

"They ask, `If that captain can even ignore the chief engineer, how will he treat the ratings in the lower positions?' "

Gaitano, still recovering from the burns, said he has received about 20,000 pesos, or $800, in compensation since he got home. He said he's entitled at least to 120 days of base pay, or about $4,000, but the company has not paid it.

"I'm spending my savings from the last few months I was at sea," Gaitano said.

Dodson filed suit for Gaitano in West Baton Rouge Parish, La., and got jurisdiction by having the Ashley "arrested" on a court order when it entered the Mississippi. The owners posted a $2 million bond.

In the Lejano case, the owners put up an $8.75 million bond to get their ship released. No bond was required in the Cabahug case.

While many would sympathize with Lejano, Cabahug and Gaitano because of their injuries, shipowners, insurers and their lawyers insist that foreign seamen should be barred in most cases from U.S. courts.

They say that if only foreign citizens, foreign-flag ships and foreign firms are involved, the disputes belong in foreign courts.

Cabahug is Filipino. The defendants in his case are shipping and insurance firms in Greece, Britain and Bermuda.

"It's a foreign shipowner and a foreign seaman who's got a contract which says his disputes are to be resolved in a foreign court," said O'Connor. "And yet, here we are dealing with it, tying up the courts."

Houston attorney Ted Litton, an admiralty law specialist, agreed.

Litton opposed Houston attorney Mark Lanier and Dodson in a Texas case that centered on two Filipino seamen who claimed an officer assaulted them on a ship docked in Houston. A Harris County district court's 1993 dismissal was upheld by Texas' 14th Court of Appeals in November.

The case began when Pedro M. Antonio and Rogelio M. Miguela -- working on a Panamanian-flag, Japanese-owned, Japanese-chartered automobile carrier in 1989 -- said a Japanese engineer beat them, at least once in Houston.

First filed in Matagorda County, the case finally was moved to state District Judge Scott Brister's Houston court. He dismissed it, saying state and federal case law gave him no jurisdiction.

"It seems strange to me that a suit involving an alleged beating in Texas waters would not be sustainable in a Texas court, but that does appear to be the law," Brister wrote. "Further, the Texas Legislature has indicated the public policy of this state is much less protective of claims by persons who are not legal residents of the United States."

Brister referred to a then-new law allowing state judges to make forum non conveniens rulings rejecting jurisdiction.

"Generally, when you have a forum non conveniens issue, the courts say they can exercise jurisdiction if they want to, but they're not going to because there's nothing in the case that really impacts this state,"said Litton. "In this case there were no Texas witnesses, it didn't happen ashore and it didn't impact anybody in Texas."

Federal courts for decades have issued forum non conveniens rulings in seafarers' cases that have no solid connection to the United States, Litton said. U.S. federal courts are required to hear cases about seafarers' pay disputes.

But advocates argue that seafarers need the protection of American courts more than ever.

They contend, too, that Third World seafarers in particular have little or no hope of getting cases through their home court systems, let alone getting fair compensation or damages.

"That's because the foreign country is not interested in doing anything other than protecting its share of the job market and making it as advantageous as it can to the employer," said Dodson. "They put obstacles in the way of the seaman ever getting to court. That's true of the Philippines and it's true, for instance, of India, where it now takes an average of 23 years from filing suit to getting a judgment."

U.S. lawyers take cases on a contingency basis. They pay expenses and take 30 percent or more of awards if they win, nothing if they lose.

"That doesn't happen in other countries because they don't have the jury systems and the ability to get large recoveries that would make it worthwhile for a lawyer to take on a case," said Stephenson. Contingent fees aren't legal everywhere, and few seamen can afford to pay lawyers in advance.

Critics say seafarers' lawyers want into U.S. courts to get rich.

"What they're really saying is that they can't get enough money in the foreign jurisdiction," said Litton.

Allowing disputes between foreigners into American courts, he said, is legal "cross-pollination."

"We're not the only place in the world that has doctors who know what they're talking about," said Litton. "Inherent in the arguments for jurisdiction here is that the rest of the world is a bunch of clods who don't know how to treat or compensate their people."

But seafarers' lawyers say compensation is better in U.S. courts.

Only this year, for instance, have Filipino seafarers had any chance at punitive damages, said Manila attorney Joseph Capuyan.
The National Labor Relations Commission, instead of the sluggish Philippine Overseas Employment Administration, now hears seamen's grievances. The commission has the power to order punitive damages but has yet to do so, Capuyan said.

"Cabahug could take the administrative remedy and get 2 or 3 cents on the dollar and get it now," said Dodson. "That's what most of them do. When your wife and children are starving, it's better to feed them for six months or a year and then go begging on the streets than letting them starve immediately."

Amounts for certain types of injuries are set out in Philippine government-approved seamen's contracts. The money is paid by employers.

"The award is $50,000 for death," said Capuyan. "Amputation at or above the knee, for example, is 78 percent of $50,000."

A 100-percent disability declaration garners a seaman $60,000. But once the government declares a percentage of disability, the employer is off the hook.

"After that, the seaman has to pay his continuing medical costs from the disability benefits," said Capuyan.

"The money will not last. How can he support a family?"

Dodson settled a brain-injured Filipino seaman's case for $5.4 million last year in Louisiana. He said damages run higher in the United States not only because of medical costs but also because of procedural rules that offer advantages to both sides.

Foreign shipowners frequently use U.S. federal courts, he said.

O'Connor said foreign owners have a right to use federal courts in cases involving property damage liability and other matters. They also have a right to insist that injured seafarers live up to contracts that call for settling disputes in other countries.

But Dodson said this is a double standard.
"None of these foreign shipping companies pay any American taxes," he said. "To them, it's OK for big foreign business to use the court system, but it's not OK for the poor, foreign working man to use it when he has no access whatsoever to any adequate remedy at all in his own country."

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Old 12-04-2006, 17:29   #6
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U.S. merchant fleet rapidly fading away

This is part four of eleven of this miniseries towards the merchant and foreign mariners.


KINGS POINT, N.Y. -- With Long Island Sound shimmering to the north and the campus of the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy in early spring flower, Capt. Richard Stewart was brooding in his military-drab office.

"How do you get kids to go to sea?" professor and academy graduate Stewart asked a visitor in exasperation.

Although the august, 53-year-old academy continues to turn out top-notch seafarers -- 217 in its 1996 graduating class -- many of these young men and women no longer bother to look for work on ships. It is a notion that would have seemed absurd, even blasphemous, a quarter-century ago, when midshipman Stewart practiced his knot-tying in Samuels Hall and learned how to load cargo on Mallory Pier.

The U.S. merchant fleet, however, is rapidly fading away. The number of non-military American sailors has tumbled from more than 100,000 in 1960 to about 20,000.

"There aren't really any sailing opportunities," 22-year-old Margaret Stanley of Houston explained as she prepared for graduation and a possible career in engineering sales. "You have to sign up with a union and just wait."
Stewart, a thoughtful and spirited man of 47 who teaches the fine points of marine transportation, is dismayed at this turn of events but not surprised.

"A U.S. seaman makes less now than he did in 1983," he said, if one takes into account the hours worked and the months away from home. Time in port -- once considered a perk of the maritime trade -- is measured in hours, not days or weeks. Bigger ships are operated by smaller crews to save money.

"It's no longer a romantic lifestyle," Stewart said. "Coming into a container port and spending eight hours is not romantic, it's stressful. You're not seeing the world."

All of this assumes, of course, that an American can even find a seafaring job. At last count, according to the U.S. Maritime Administration, only 298 U.S.-flag, deep-ocean vessels remained in a fleet that once topped 3,500.

Lured by low fees and taxes and often-negligible regulation, hundreds of shipowners have abandoned the U.S. flag for the exotic registries of Vanuatu (the former New Hebrides), Belize and the Marshall Islands.

The world's largest fleet, in both tonnage and number of vessels, is now administered by Panama, a country of 2.6 million still recovering from the U.S. invasion of 1989. The second-largest is run from an office building in Reston, Va., on behalf of Liberia, a West African nation in chaos after a recent civil war.
A visitor to the Port of Houston is far more likely to spot a Cypriot or Ukrainian flag on a freighter than an American one. Ninety-five percent of the oceangoing cargo entering or leaving the United States now moves on foreign-flag ships, which often employ low-wage sailors from developing nations such as the Philippines, Burma or China.

American seafarers, meanwhile, pass their time in union halls, reliving memorable voyages as they glance periodically at the day's job board. If they are persistent they may find something on a Sea Land or American President Lines container ship, although even these companies do not fly the American flag exclusively.

"It's a national embarrassment," said Dean Corgey, vice president of the Seafarers International Union's Gulf Coast Region. Foreign-flag ships are "using our ports, they're using our infrastructure and they're not giving anything back."

The maritime unions, said William Lovett, a professor of law and economics at Tulane University in New Orleans, bear some of the blame for their own predicament. Open ship registries -- pejoratively known as "flags of convenience" -- prospered in part because "our mariners were too damned expensive,"Lovett said. "The unions wouldn't give on crew size and wages. We became non-competitive."

Lovett is editor of a new book, United States Shipping Policies and the World Market, in which he, Richard Stewart and others review the factors -- a formidable tort system, intransigent unions, an inattentive Congress -- that caused the American merchant marine to become gravely ill.

One of the book's premises is that the gaping U.S.balance-of-payments deficit, now running about $150 billion a year, would shrink if there were more American-owned -- better yet, American-flag -- ships.
"If you let other people's ships do your exporting and importing for you, you're losing a significant chunk of service-revenue potential to other countries," Lovett said.

The European Union nations and Japan, which together account for more than half of the world's shipping, "recognize the critical importance of merchant shipping services for their overall economic health," he said. "We are the biggest patsy in the global trade market in that we let other people do our shipping. This is dumb. This is really stupid. If the public really knew about it they'd be fully horrified and shocked."

The consensus among the book's contributors appears to be that an 11th-hour resuscitation of the once-robust U.S. shipping industry is possible but will require a Herculean commitment, in no small part because shipping has lost its aura and therefore its constituency.

"Technological advances," writes N.N. Shashikumar, a professor at the Maine Maritime Academy, "have made large-scale movement of cargo from Bombay to Boston or Vladivostok to Zimbabwe as routine as a commute from the suburbs. Unfortunately, the only time the shipping industry receives public attention in advanced countries now is in times of catastrophe, such as after a major oil spill or a tragic collision."

Shipping, Shashikumar writes, has become "just another mode of transportation,"and "the special status enjoyed by shipping in many developed countries has more or less eroded, which allows policies to become neglectful or shipping-hostile."
Still, the top man at the Maritime Administration -- part of the U.S. Department of Transportation -- is not ready to concede defeat.

A.J. Herberger notes that shipyards in New Orleans, Mobile, Ala., and Newport News, Va. -- which had essentially abandoned commercial shipbuilding -- have sprung to life, thanks to a federal loan-guarantee program that makes it easier for them to get financing. As of March 31, 15 large oceangoing ships were under construction at these yards, representing the biggest backlog of orders since 1982.

Upbeat and pugnacious, Herberger sees no reason why similar success can't be achieved with shipowners. The retired Navy admiral seethed last March when several prominent publications, among them Time magazine, the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times, criticized pending legislationto subsidize 50 privately owned cargo vessels in the amount of $2 million apiece for 10 years to ensure their availability in times of war and keep a U.S. shipping toehold in foreign trade.

A Times editorial characterized it as a "wasteful," $1 billion continuation of a "long-entrenched corporate welfare program."

Herberger fired off several responses, in which he argued that the subsidies would be a relative bargain. (A 1995 study concluded, for example, that if the government had to maintain its own cargo fleet for strategic purposes, the cost could range from $450 million to $800 million per year.)
"The U.S.-flag merchant marine played a crucial role in the sustainment of our troops during Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm, just as they have in every conflict we've ever been engaged in," Herberger wrote in a letter published by the Times.

Absent a reserve fleet of cargo carriers, Herberger said in an interview, the United States would be "totally at the mercy of foreign nations" the next time it needs to sustain troops in combat or on dangerous humanitarian missions.

"Without these ships we're going to be standing with our thumbs out," he said. "Japan and China aren't going to give us any vessels. All we're trying to do is maintain a presence. Is this corporate welfare?"

Precisely, said Rob Quartel, a member of the Federal Maritime Commission under President Bush who is leading a crusade against subsidies.

Shipping, Quartel said, consists of "a network of interests that's hoodwinked the public for decades. The government's part of it. This is the only industry in the United States that believes in its heart that it can't compete, and that's a fatal flaw. I'm probably one of the few people who believes American shipping can compete on the international market, but it needs to be unfettered."

The United States, Quartelsaid, needs to drop its profligate subsidies and "archaic"manning requirements. "We have to sail ships with 21 people that could sail under international law with 14."
Specifically, Quartel's group, the Jones Act Reform Coalition, wants to change Section 27 of the venerable Merchant Marine Act of 1920 -- better known as the Jones Act, after its sponsor, Sen. Wesley Jones of Washington state. The act requires that vessels engaged in domestic commerce be American built, owned, crewed and registered, a premise people seem to find either prudent and movingly patriotic (Herberger) or counterproductive and hopelessly anachronistic (Quartel).

The coalition, composed mainly of manufacturers and commodity shippers, seeks the freedom to move scrap metal, grain, coal and other products on foreign-built, foreign-crewed and foreign-owned ships and barges.

This, Quartel said, would trim considerable fat from such operations and result in savings to consumers; as things stand, he said, mostAmerican-owned, oceangoing ships fly foreign flags and therefore cannot carry goods between, say, Houston and Tampa, because of the Jones Act.

Responding to one of the main arguments of his critics, Quartel said there is no reason to believe that foreign ships are inherently more dangerous than American ones. Figures compiled by the Institute of London Underwriters, however, show that certain flags -- Honduras, Malta and Turkey, for example -- have been consistently and dramatically above the world average in total losses as percentages of their fleets.

Those who visit such ships on a regular basis attest to their inferiority. "As soon as the American flag disappears, the top of the line disappears," said Karen Lai, a port chaplain in Galveston. "And right now, the bottom we see is really bad."

Government aid to shipping is hardly a novel concept. In his book, Tulane's Lovett writes that as early as 1789, Congress "enacted discriminatory tariffs and tonnage duties to favor American ships. Foreign ships paid tonnage duties on each entry, whereas U.S. ships paid only annually."
Thus began what Lovett calls "artificial protectionism," which weakened -- perhaps fatally -- the American merchant marine and allowed nations such as Japan and Greece to become and remain dominant in the late 20th century.

In 1936 Congress passed the landmark Merchant Marine Act, which provided subsidies to American shipbuilders and owners beset by lower construction and operating costs abroad.

"Unfortunately," Lovett writes, "this program did not reliably offset subsidized foreign competition. U.S. subsidies under the 1936 Act were narrowly limited, so that less-than-normal profit returns came to many U.S.-flag shipowners." (The construction subsidies ended in 1981, and the operating subsidies will end, with a few exceptions, in 1997.)

The Merchant Ship Sales Act of 1946 brought about the bargain-basement sale of some of America's best freighters to its war-weakened allies, mainly in Europe. The rationale was that a healthy merchant marine in these countries would be good for them and good for the United States. As it turned out, this extraordinary gift, combined with lower European labor costs, started American shipping on a fast slide.

President Nixon pledged in 1970 to build 300 first-rate ships under amendments to the Merchant Marine Act. But only half the goal was met before the administration was brought down by the Watergate scandal.

The Tax Reform Act of 1986 lifted the exemption from income taxes that American owners of foreign-flag vessels had enjoyed, driving a number of these owners out of the business while leaving foreign owners untouched.
Then came what may have been the final blow, the grounding of the tanker Exxon Valdez off the Alaskan coast in 1989. The resulting 11-million-gallon oil spill gave rise to the Oil Pollution Act of 1990, which created virtually unlimited liability for ships that spill environmentally harmful substances. Exxon took a cumulative $6.2 billion pounding in federal and state jury trials, and most oil companies now charter foreign-flag vessels in an attempt to spread liability.

"No American oil company," Lovett said, "can safely own tankers that come anywhere near the United States because of the Exxon Valdez."

Unlike Japan -- which has held its place as the world's most prolific shipbuilding nation and ranks a close second, to Greece, in vessel ownership -- America has been unwilling to adjust its policies to keep its maritime industry healthy, Lovett said.

Both Japan and Greece allow foreign (therefore lower paid) crews on their vessels but require officers to be nationals. Japan "subsidized its shipbuilding heavily,"Lovett said, while "we were using a kind of trickle system of subsidy" to which restrictions were added. "They were a strait jacket; you couldn't make any real money."

Herberger insists that the new program is substantially different from its predecessors in that it is less rigid -- it doesn't require ships to travel government-approved trade routes, for example -- and less costly. It is more a retainer, he says, than a true subsidy.
As executive director of the Port of Houston, Tom Kornegay cannot concern himself with such matters of public policy. The registries of the 5,500 or so vessels that move through the Houston Ship Channel every year and the ethnicity of their crews are of little interest to him.

Kornegay must worry instead about whether his dockage (parking) fees compare favorably with those of ports such as Corpus Christi and how long it will take to widen and deepen the Ship Channel so it can accommodate the gargantuan container ships so highly coveted in ports around the world.

"This business is excruciatingly competitive," Kornegay said. He travels often to promote the port, whose economic impact has been calculated at $5.5 billion a year.

Houston ranks second nationally -- behind the Port of South Louisiana -- in total seaborne cargo, having handled 144 million tons in 1995. It sent abroad or received 46 million tons of petroleum and petroleum products last year and 8.7 million tons of organic chemicals. Its top export trading partner was Mexico, to which it sent 2.8 million tons of goods (mostly gasoline), its top import trading partner Venezuela, from which it received 8.6 million tons (mostly crude oil).

Although these statistics are impressive, Kornegay cannot afford to grow complacent. Should Houston's container facilities go to seed, should the connecting rail lines fall into disrepair or port fees get too high, flexible ship owners would go elsewhere, he said.

The catch phrase today is intermodal transportation -- the precisely timed movement of cargo by ship, rail and truck. Modern container ships can be loaded or unloaded in a matter of hours -- hence the brief, soulless periods in port bemoaned by Capt. Stewart.
"A graduate today can't expect to find gainful employment in the maritime industry if he knows just how to be a deck officer or engineer," said Rear Adm. Thomas Matteson, superintendent of the Merchant Marine Academy. "He needs a significant amount of instruction in intermodal transportation, business, law, human behavior."

Where does this leave the mid- or late-career American seafarer who does not subscribe to Business Weekor grasp the concept of Total Quality Management? The man or woman who went to sea because it was stimulating, paid respectably and beat any desk or factory job that could be envisioned?

More often than not, it leaves such a person killing time in a union hall.

"I'd quit and never go to sea again if I had to sail foreign," Ernest Gibson, 55, said recently as he sat in the Seafarers International Union building on Pierce Street in downtown Houston.

"I've seen ships with live chickens on them, ships where the crews have to do a lot of fishing if they want to eat," Gibson said. "In some of these countries you can buy a license like you order a pair of shoes out of the Sears and Roebuck catalog. I'd be scared to death to go on one of these ships overseas."

So Gibson will wait days, perhaps weeks, for a job on a U.S.-flag vessel. "You know, when I started," he said pensively, "you could walk into the SIU hall and get a job the same day."
SIU vice president Corgey, who grew up in modest surroundings on Houston's East Side and was trained as a chief engineer, said, "The merchant marine was always a place where someone like me could be somebody. That's been severely limited. The cold, hard reality is that we have to turn a lot of kids away these days."

"Those who desire to give up Freedom in order to gain security, will not have, nor do they deserve, either one." - Benjamin Franklin
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Panama Canal pilots worry as U.S. control nears an end

Part five of eleven in this series.

Copyright 1996 Houston Chronicle

PANAMA CITY, Panama --Early on the morning of July 15, 1995, the Mundogas Atlantic, a 561-foot tanker carrying liquefied petroleum gas, began what should have been a routine southbound transit through the Panama Canal.

The Liberian-flag vessel was a regular user of the canal, passing through about twice a month. Its July 15 transit was unremarkable until 5:50 p.m., when the pilot on the 27-year-old tanker reported the presence of a white vapor cloud hovering above the main deck.

During the next six hours, as vapor continued to shoot from a pipe, the Mundogas Atlantic came treacherously close to exploding, an event that almost certainly would have killed everyone on board and brought time-sensitive canal operations to a halt.

It later was calculated that some 200 tons -- 4.5 million cubic feet -- of vapor had wafted over the busy Pedro Miguel Locks during the venting of the ship's overheated, improperly insulated cargo tanks. It also was learned that the chief engineer had been smoking cigarettes on the bridge at the height of the crisis.

It was sheer luck that saved the Mundogas Atlantic: The temperature and pressure in the tanks dropped to manageable levels and the safety valves began functioning after enough of the vapor had been released. The close call has come to embody the worst fears of the pilots who direct nearly 14,000 canal tran-sits a year.

"That gas expands 600 times," said Bob Gray, who has worked on the canal for 17 years. "If there's a fire, it's going to burn a long time and very hot. If it explodes it's Katy bar the door."

Such incidents, while rare, take on added significance in view of the impending transfer of the U.S.-built and -operated canal into Panamanian hands. At noon on Dec. 31, 1999, the Panama Canal Commission will cease to exist and the Panama Canal Authority will take its place, assuming responsibility for the 82-year-old waterway as agreed by treaty in 1977.
Apprehension is building. The canal, while still in generally good condition, was not designed for today's huge tankers, bulkers, container ships and cruise ships. Lanes in the Pedro Miguel, Miraflores and Gatun locks are 110 feet wide, and it is not unusual for a vessel to have only two feet of clearance on either side.

Traffic is increasing, and some of the pilots who manage it are anxious.

"We do a lot of crazy stuff by any standard," said Jorge Teran, president of the Panama Canal Pilots Branch of the International Organization of Master Mates and Pilots.

"We're working in very restrictive waters," said Miguel Rodriguez, the group's secretary-treasurer, "and we're taking a lot more ships through. Ships that used to transit in daylight with four pilots now go at night with two."

The canal's 190 or so active pilots have unique standing. Unlike their counterparts in ports around the world, they are not merely advisers to captains; they assume command of ships making the ticklish, 50-mile journey between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. Their employer, the commission, is responsible if they make a mistake.

As some of the pilots see it, the Mundogas Atlantic fiasco was symptomatic of a marked -- though hardly irreversible --erosion of safety in the canal.
In another noteworthy event two years ago, the Cypriot-flag bulker Eleousa, loaded with corn, entered the canal with its cargo on fire, a rather obvious problem the captain failed to report for several days. Authorities extinguished the fire while the ship was docked by attacking it with carbon dioxide, removing some of the corn and then applying a dry chemical.

A recent "state of the canal" study performed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers identified a number of maintenance and traffic-management problems.

Among other things, the Corps found deterioration in the locks' concrete lanes and gate machinery and in the small locomotives that pull the ships. It warned that "lane closures will continue to curtail operations," and noted that the average "canal waters time" -- the period a vessel actually spends in the canal -- jumped from 23.4 hours in 1994 to 28.9 hours in 1995.

"We have had several years of unprecedented increases in traffic down here," said Capt. George Hull, the canal commission's marine director. "That almost automatically places you in a position of playing catch-up or working like hell to hold your own on things like maintenance. You can only defer maintenance for so long before it jumps up and bites you."

Joseph Cornelison, the commission's deputy administrator and its highest-ranking American, is not among the naysayers. He acknowledged, however, that "there's a lot of anxiety out there that (the canal) will become a cash cow that will be milked to death" by Panama at the expense of upkeep.
Some skeptics see the Panama National Railroad, which parallels the canal, as a portent. Until 1979, when it came under Panamanian control, the railroad provided safe and reliable transportation, mainly for canal workers.

Since that time it has fallen into utter disrepair. Within sight of the imposing canal administration building are abandoned railroad cars and weed-covered tracks.

"They just don't believe in preventive maintenance," one American official said of the Panamanians.

Cornelison, who may stay on after 1999, believes such statements are unfair and doubts that Panama will allow substantial deterioration of the canal. The government has taken great pains, he said, to ensure that the waterway does not fall victim to the caprices of politicians: the new canal authority will have fiscal autonomy from the Panamanian government and a merit employment system to discourage patronage and nepotism.

The transfer "must be accomplished in a totally seamless way for the canal users,"said Panama's minister of foreign affairs, Ricardo Alberto Arias. "The canal is not a monopoly. It has to be run efficiently to remain successful."

It might seem that the canal is without true competition: it was cut at American expense through the Isthmus of Panama, after all, because interoceanic traffic lost precious time skirting South America and going through the Strait of Magellan.
Cornelison said, however, that if tolls get too high -- $460 million was collected last year, and there have been six toll increases since 1974 -- and delays too long it may be more economical for the biggest of today's ships to take the roundabout route.Although the average transit takes just over 24 hours, vessels can be held for days at either of the canal's entrances during maintenance outages or bad weather.

The emergence of intermodal transportation -- the nearly continuous movement of containerized goods by ship, rail and truck -- also has diminished the canal's importance. A shipper of cargo from, say, Tokyo to New York might save 5,000 miles by using the new method, taking goods by water from Japan to the West Coast and continuing eastward by land.

As Panamanian officials consider whether to build wider, longer locks to accommodate ultralarge ships and envision the wonders of a resort planned for the canal's southern terminus, a more mundane but nonetheless critical matter demands attention.

At a time when the need for experienced pilots is growing, almost half of the pilot force is eligible for retirement. Union chief Teran believes that many of the senior people, weary from lengthening work days and uneasy about the impending change in canal management, will opt out in the near future.

Said pilot Gray: "We're all concerned. We're frequently working 16 hours at a stretch. When I first started (in 1979) you could count on 12 hours, door to door."

Hours are irregular as well as long. A pilot might start one day at 2:30 a.m., the next at 4 p.m. Sleep patterns are interrupted, fatigue creeps in. Accidents can happen.
At least two commission officials who attended a National Transportation Safety Board symposium on fatigue last November returned with strong opinions on the subject.

Dr. Maria Antoniadis, chief of the commission's Occupational Health Division, and Jorge Quijano, chief of the Locks Division, wrote separate memoranda urging canal managers to take steps to ensure that pilots get enough sleep.

"Not having an accident does not mean that you have a safe operation," Antoniadis pointed out.

The long, erratic shifts, however, have continued.

"Morale always affects the safety of the canal," Gray said, "and morale in the pilot force is low."

Ove Hultin, 69, is one of the canal's most senior pilots, with 30 years' experience. He has not lost his touch, as evidenced by his calm, authoritative guidance of the Kiyoh --a huge, 3-year-old Panamanian-flag bulker carrying soybeans from Baltimore to Yokohama, Japan -- on a recent southbound transit.

During Hultin's early years on the canal, ships as big as the 65,000-ton Kiyoh were oddities. Now such vessels are the norm, and Hultin isn't happy about it.

"She's like a shoe box," he complained as the Kiyoh eased into the Pedro Miguel Locks. "There's no lines to a ship like this."
Despite all the changes, Hultin has retained his enthusiasm for piloting. On this day he barked orders to the Kiyoh's Filipino crew -- "Amidships!" "Port 10!" "Steady!" -- while peering through a pair of binoculars.

Enthusiasm can only take a pilot so far, however. Under prolonged strain, everyone has a breaking point.

"During the day it isn't so bad, but the all-night transits really kill you," Hultin said. "You don't have any sleep patterns. Some people are right on the edge."

The canal's official accident statistics are commendable. In 1995 only 32 vessels were reported damaged. Twenty-four of these accidents were blamed on pilots.

In recent years the accident rate has fluctuated between 2 and 3 per 1,000 transits. It has been trending downward since 1980.

Gray, however, said the commission's numbers are misleading. "In order to collect (damages) if there's an accident, a ship has to stay for an investigation," he said. "The typical delay for this is 24 hours, so if your daily cost exceeds the cost of the incident, it's better to keep going."

Nor do the numbers reflect the brushes with calamity that make pilots and canal operations officials shudder.

"If you could make dead pilots from the '30s and '40s come alive and take them out on a transit today," Rodriguez said, "they'd die a second time of a heart attack."
Cornelison, the deputy administrator, conceded that the canal is near capacity, handling an average of 39 ships a day and sometimes as many as 45. "We're looking at (expansion) alternatives," he said.

Mistrust between the commission and the pilots is palpable. The two groups have argued repeatedly over key points of the pilots' current contract, signed in December 1994, and the disputes sometimes require arbitration.

Among other things, the parties disagree about limits on the number of hours per day and per week pilots work. The commission opposes such limits, while the pilots are clamoring for them.

"We've had guys who've worked 75 hours in a week," Rodriguez said. "Seventy-something hours in a very stressful job is a killer."

Cornelison declined to comment on the pilots' concerns and asked that any related questions from the Chronicle be put in writing.

The written responses, prepared by public affairs director Willie Friar, suggest that the commission has a sunnier view of the canal's future than do the pilots.

"It would be presumptuous to extrapolate a single incident such as that in the Mundogas Atlantic into a conclusion of general erosion of safety among ships passing through the Panama Canal," Friar wrote. "Ships which are carrying dangerous cargos are placed in special categories which result in transit restrictions and additional scheduling protocols."
Friar also wrote that while pilots on a 10-week cycle -- six weeks on and four off -- "on rare occasions work over 50 hours per week . . . the average work week remains about 48 hours." No "extreme work hours" have been recorded for any pilot since 1995, she wrote.

Addressing Teran's prediction of a pilot shortage due to mass retirements, Friar wrote: "Our projections based on a recent survey are that we will have sufficient pilots to replace those that have indicated that they will retire in the near future."

Arias, Panama's foreign minister, noted that more than 90 percent of all canal employees and more than half of the pilots are Panamanian. They have been phased in to replace Americans, as per the treaty, since 1979.

"It is going along incredibly well," Arias said.

Panama sees its inheritance of the canal as a chance to prove that it has moved beyond the drug-related corruption that led to the U.S. invasion and the capture of President Manuel Noriega in late 1989 and early 1990.

It has grand plans for theformer Canal Zone's 7,000 military buildings -- some of the 3,000 housing units already have been sold to eager Panamanians -- as well as its undeveloped land.
The Evergreen line is building a $100 million container port in Colon, at the Atlantic entrance to the canal, and a chic resort has been proposed for the Amador area, on the Pacific. Part of it would occupy spectacularly situated Flamingo Island, where Noriega maintained one of several heavily fortified hideouts.

There are plans for an academic and research complex, to be known as the City of Knowledge, and for all manner of shipping-related services.

"Our work is just beginning," said Dr. Nicolas Ardito Barletta, former president of Panama and now administrator of the Interoceanic Region Authority, responsible for overseeing the various projects. "There will be a total investment of $1 billion over the next three years."

Some residents of the Casco Viejo ("Old Quarter"), one of Panama City's poorest neighborhoods, are cynical about such pronouncements.

While they aren't enamored of Americans -- "They have always treated the Panamanians like slaves," groused 70-year-old Ricardo Molina -- they lack confidence in their own government as well.

"It's a high expense to keep the canal working," said Roberto Vasquez, also 70. "I'm afraid the (tolls) coming into the canal won't be enough to maintain it. In the past, the Americans have always been the ones to repair it."

Both men doubt that the Casco Viejo will see many economic benefits from the canal, even if the government's lofty expectations are met.
"It could produce jobs," Molina said, "but nobody knows. Right now there's a lot of misery here."

"Those who desire to give up Freedom in order to gain security, will not have, nor do they deserve, either one." - Benjamin Franklin
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Part six of eleven in this series.

As cruise industry grows, so do concerns about passenger safety

Copyright 1996 Houston Chronicle</B>

PORT EVERGLADES, Fla. -- Given the crew's inept performance during a fire drill six days earlier, the commotion on the burning cruise ship Discovery I last May 8 was hardly surprising.

"It was a circus," said Richard Burgoon, who felt for a time that he might die in the Atlantic Ocean within sight of land.

Burgoon, a 66-year-old retiree with emphysema, was nearing the end of a 90-mile cruise from Port Everglades to Freeport, Bahamas with his wife, Fran, when his hypersensitive airway began reacting to smoke.

"I had to keep myself from panicking,"he said. "We were enveloped in smoke. The corridor was totally crowded. The stairwells were just mobbed. The crew people were running around, shouting. You didn't know what they were saying. There was never an alarm."

The Burgoons, who live in Lake Forest, Calif., look back on that day with a mixture of relief and rage. No one died as a result of the engine-room fire on the crowded, Panamanian-flag Discovery I, and no one was seriously hurt. Given his respiratory disease, Richard Burgoon came through it all remarkably well.
Five months later, however, he still seethes. He has written letters to Discovery Cruise Line and the National Transportation Safety Board, among others, and has been unhappy with the tepid replies. "I feel so strongly that this was a near-disaster," Burgoon said. "I want to do more."

As do others. Although the foreign-flag cruise industry has a commendable modern record in terms of loss of American life, a number of serious accidents --mostly fires -- during the past decade have caused some knowledgeable people to question the industry's professed commitment to safety.

"It's hard to think of another mode of transportation in which the operators aren't very anxious to know the causes of accidents," said Jim Kolstad, chairman of the NTSB from 1990 to 1992 and now a vice-president with the American Automobile Association in Heathrow, Fla.

Three Discovery I engine-room workers, all Central Americans, told the U.S. Coast Guard under oath that they reported a fuel-line leak to their supervisors hours before the May 8 fire but that no one repaired the line. The leak, they testified, was minor at 8 a.m. but by noon had grown so strong that large buckets were needed to catch streams of oil.

"I look and I think, `Why they not stop it?' "Ricardo Garcia, a Guatemalan fitter, said in a deposition obtained by the Houston Chronicle under the Freedom of Information Act. The fire began about 12:30 p.m.

Unemployed and back in Guatemala, Garcia speculated recently that he was dismissed with six months remaining on his contract because he told the truth.

"I could not live with myself if somebody had died on that ship," he said in a telephone interview. The two other crewmen lost their jobs as well.

Officials with Discovery did not return repeated calls from the Chronicle last week.
A spokeswoman for the cruise industry, which carried 4.4 million passengers from North American ports last year, characterized incidents such as the Discovery I fire as aberrations.

"The industry as a whole has the best safety record of any mode of transportation," said Cindy Colenda, president of the Washington-based International Council of Cruise Lines, a trade association that represents 19 cruise lines with 83 ships. (Colenda pointed out that Discovery and other companies that specialize in day cruises are not members of the ICCL.)

Although a Coast Guard report last year concluded that "the cruise ship industry is a safe industry," recent events have not been reassuring. Three shipboard fires since the beginning of May have compelled the Coast Guard's top marine safety official to ask every cruise line that carries U.S. passengers or calls at U.S. ports to conduct a special fire risk assessment by early December.

The fires, Rear Adm. James Card wrote in a Sept. 4 letter to ship owners and operators, "could have been far more severe. Clearly your industry is particularly vulnerable because of the precious cargo you carry."

Bigger, more elaborate ships only raise the stakes. On Nov. 9 in Boston, Carnival Cruise Lines plans to dedicate the world's largest passenger vessel, the 101,672-ton, 893-foot Destiny. The luxurious ship, capable of holding 3,400 passengers and 1,076 crew members, will have the latest in fire-protection and lifesaving equipment.

It also will have two atriums, which can act as chimneys in the event of fire. Because they penetrate several decks and eliminate bulkheads, atriums run counter to basic marine fire-containment strategy.

Then-NTSB chairman Kolstad publicly decried the drift toward "floating hotels"more than six years ago, testifying before a House subcommittee in April 1990 that atriums "present a severe challenge to fire control and safety."
Kolstad's admonition, however, had no effect. Atriums may be less than ideal from a safety standpoint, but they attract passengers and have become internationally accepted.

The week of Oct. 7, a six-member Coast Guard inspection team will tour the Destiny at the Fincantieri Shipyard in Monfalcone, Italy. The team will pay particularly close attention to smoke-extraction devices in the ship's atriums -- devices the Coast Guard hopes will compensate for the chimney effect.

"We try to adjust the rules to meet the new designs," said Cmdr. William Uberti of Miami, who will be among the inspectors. "Usually there's some way you can do it."

Uberti's supervisor in Miami, Capt. David Miller, insists that the Coast Guard holds new and old cruise ships to a high standard. "There's not a vessel we've inspected that I'd hesitate to put my grandmother on," he said.

Still, a Chronicle investigation of cruise ship safety -- part of an ongoing study of the world maritime industry -- suggests that some accidents resulted from or exposed safety lapses so pronounced that only luck kept American passengers from being killed or injured. For example:

· On March 15, 1988, a fire broke out in the engine room of the Bahamian-flag Scandinavian Star in the Caribbean, about 60 miles north of Cancun, Mexico. Although there were no deaths or serious injuries among the 439 (mostly American) passengers and 268 crew members, the vessel -- on its way from St. Petersburg, Fla. to Cozumel, Mexico -- sustained $3.5 million in damage.
An NTSB report on the accident proved tragically prescient. The board criticized the Scandinavian Star's firefighting equipment and engine-room maintenance program. It also found that the lack of a common language among crew members hindered their ability to communicate with one another and with passengers, and that the ship's emergency evacuation plan was deficient.

"They came so close to putting 700 people in the water, many of them senior citizens,"said an NTSB employee who asked not to be identified.

The Scandinavian Star was sold to a Danish firm in January 1990 and put into service as a ferry on the North Sea. On April 7 of that year, hours after the vessel left Oslo, fires were deliberately set on two of its decks -- most likely, authorities believed, by a Danish passenger with several arson convictions.

Flames and toxic fumes killed 158 people, 99 of whom (including the Danish man) were still in their cabins when they died. After an inquiry, the Norwegian government reported: "Conditions in the escape routes were extremely difficult, with dense, toxic smoke and little light. Furthermore, the escape routes were difficult to follow, involving many changes of direction, and some of the corridors had dead ends. About 20 of the bodies were found in two dead-end corridors."

Observed the NTSB: "That so many bodies were found in passenger staterooms and in corridors strongly suggests that the procedures and means for notifying passengers of the fire and for evacuating them to safety were woefully inadequate."

· On Feb. 10, 1989, the Liberian-flag Celebration, a 733-foot cruise ship owned by Miami-based Carnival, rammed the Capitan San Luis, a 352-foot Cuban bulk carrier loaded with cement, about 25 miles off the northeastern coast of Cuba.

The Celebration was carrying 1,580 passengers --again, most of them American -- and a crew of 671. It sliced the Cuban ship in two, killing the captain and two other crew members and injuring 13.
"The circumstances of this collision could have been catastrophic," Kolstad testified in 1990. "For example, if the relative speeds of the vessels were slightly different, the Cuban vessel could have, instead, struck the Celebration."

Kolstad noted that visibility was good at the time of the accident and that the Celebration was then "the newest of the Carnival fleet ... a state-of-the-art passenger vessel equipped with the most modern, automatic radar system."

It was this accident, more than any, that highlighted the NTSB's limited investigative powers with regard to foreign-flag vessels. Unless an accident occurs on a U.S.-flag vessel (a rarity in the cruise industry) or in U.S. territorial waters (up to three miles offshore), the board can only conduct a full-scale inquiry with the shipowner's permission .

Jim Burnett, an NTSB member from 1981 to 1991 and its chairman from 1982 to 1988, said Carnival officials were uncooperative after the Celebration crash. "Carnival didn't want us to do a full-fledged investigation," he said, perhaps because the board's findings might have reflected poorly on the company that calls itself "The most popular cruise line in the world."

The Celebration "had the radar arms that swing around, but no one was monitoring (the radar),"Burnett said. "You had the facade of safety with none actually being practiced."(Carnival maintained that the Capitan San Luis' lights were out and that it never made radio contact with the Celebration.)

The NTSB sought to subpoena the Celebration'screw, but a federal judge in Miami quashed the subpoenas after deciding that the board had no authority in such cases.
Spokesman Tim Gallagher said that Carnival might have allowed the NTSB to examine the Celebration if the board had the cooperation of the Cuban government. When the Cubans demurred, Gallagher said, Carnival vetoed the idea of an NTSB inquiry, fearing it would be "one-sided."

At the time, Gallagher said, NTSB members seemed "much more concerned about putting forth their own political agenda than with safety in the cruise industry, and we just said at that point, `We're not going to play that game.' "

The board's agenda, he said, was "to gain authority over regulation of the cruise industry."

Carnival was more receptive to the NTSB after the Celebration caught fire with 1,800 passengers aboard near San Salvador Island in the Bahamas on June 18, 1995. The control-room fire, caused by a mechanical failure, was quickly extinguished but left the ship without air conditioning and other amenities for a day and a half. Annoyed but unhurt, the stranded passengers ultimately were moved to another Carnival vessel.

The NTSB and the Coast Guard conducted a joint investigation. Although neither agency has released its report, a source said the NTSB is expected to recommend that Carnival review the reliability of the ship's primary power plant and the techniques crew members use to fight electrical fires.

Capt. David Wood, Carnival's fleet-safety and environmental manager, said the company "spares no expense" when it comes to safety, sending its crews to a professional firefighting academy in Miami and subjecting its policies to outside audits.

If Discovery Cruise Line offers advanced fire training, it didn't show on May 2, when Discovery I crew members bungled a fire drill -- or six days later, when they faced the real thing off Freeport.
The drill, conducted as part of a routine, quarterly inspection by the Coast Guard, was designed to test the crew's response to a simulated fire in the ship's purifier room, where engine oil is cleaned and recycled.

The firefighting team made a number of errors -- failing to wear self-contained breathing apparatus, for instance, and failing to appear with a hose. "If this had been a real fire," Coast Guard inspector Val Deutsch wrote later in a report, "they would have lost six firefighters, three officers and all of the support personnel."

A Coast Guard reservist and a firefighter with the Metro Dade Fire Dept., Deutsch said in an interview that the crew members "were just walking through the drill. They weren't playing like it was a real fire."

Nonetheless, Deutsch said that he and the other Coast Guard inspector on the Discovery I that day, Lt. Brian Gove, agreed that the botched drill in itself was not enough to keep the ship from sailing. Deutsch said the vessel's safety officer assured him that "he understood my concerns and he was going to change the training."

Accounts given by the Burgoons and two other Americans on board the Discovery I the day it caught fire indicate that any remedial training the crew received was perfunctory.

Bob and Joan Wagner, of the Chicago suburb of Alsip, Ill., were taking their first cruise. Bob Wagner recalls how crowded the vessel was and how a crewman -- an entertainer, Wagner surmised -- joked on the lounge stage "about how they were supposed to have a fire drill every month but hadn't had one in six months."
Fire broke out not long after the man's flippant remark. The 58-year-old Wagner, who has liver disease, found his wife in the ship's casino. The two made their way up to the main deck as crew members scurried about in the smoke and shouted, mostly in Spanish.

The Greek captain, Georgios Salichos, got on the public-address system and attempted to reassure the passengers, but Wagner found him "very hard to understand."

"To be frank," Wagner said of the crew, "they didn't know what the hell they were doing. They were telling us every 15 or 20 minutes that everything was under control, and then the flames would come up higher"out of the stack.

Patricia Osborne of Canton, Ohio, who was on the Discovery I with her husband, James, also found Captain Salichos' instructions difficult to understand and said that some passengers were "petrified" during the fire. "They just wouldn't move."

Three engine-room workers told the Coast Guard under oath that a fuel line to the port engine's No. 10 cylinder had begun leaking shortly after the ship left Port Everglades at 8 a.m.

At first the line was merely "weeping" diesel fuel, testified Garcia, the Guatemalan fitter. (The vessel typically ran on diesel during the first 30 or 45 minutes of the five-hour voyage to Freeport, then switched to heavier fuel oil.)

Garcia said he reported the leak to third engineer Restituto del Rosario and first engineer Constantinos Ganellis, but the staff engineer above them, Georgios Proios, apparently decided to wait until the ship got to Freeport to make a repair.

Garcia found the decision puzzling. "I think, `Stop the engine a few minutes and change the pipe,' " he testified.

Jose Sandres, a Honduran oiler working in the engine room at the same time as Garcia, told the Coast Guard that the leak "continued during my four hours of watch" (from 8 to noon) and could have been stopped, early on, with little trouble.
By noon, Sandres said, the leak had become a "spray" of pungent oil. "It was pretty strong," he said, and crewmen used five-gallon buckets to try to capture as much oil as possible.

Sandres said he had heard a rumor after the fire that anyone who spoke candidly to the Coast Guard about the leak would get in trouble with Discovery.

"But why would I not be able to say the whole truth?" Sandres asked during his deposition. A few days later he was dismissed; he could not be reached for comment.

Jose Arnold Montoya, another oiler from Honduras, went to work in the engine room at noon. "On two occasions," he testified, "I reported to the officer who was on duty that a lot of oil was coming out from (the line) and also smoke, pretty thick smoke."

By 12:30 or so, Montoya said, the smoke and the fuel smell were intolerable. "I told my partner(Florian Turcios) ... to withdraw from there, that at any moment that was going to start a blaze."

The two men moved to an adjoining room. Within minutes, Montoya testified, "the fire rushed out with potency ... like when one sets off a flame thrower."

Montoya told the Coast Guard he was upset that "everybody is lying" about the events of May 8. He said the Discovery I's chief engineer, Nikolaos Loukianos, had warned him to give testimony favorable to the company -- "that everything was normal" in the engine room before the fire.
"I don't care if they throw me out or send me back home," Montoya said. He was, in fact, fired and sent home to rural Honduras. He declined to speak with the Chronicle.

In his deposition, Loukianos denied receiving any reports of a fuel leak before the fire. Nor, he said, did he see anything unusual when he inspected the engine room during the first hour of the voyage.

Loukianos said that there had been fuel leaks on the Discovery I before but that none had ever been more than a "drip."

Others verified Loukianos' story. Staff engineer Proios said that any leaking pipe could have been repaired or replaced in minutes while the ship was underway, but that he knew of no leaks on May 8. "This pipe break because of vibration," he theorized.

First engineer Ganellis testified that he walked through the engine room at about 8 a.m. and 9:50 a.m. the day of the fire and found "no leaking. I don't remember anything like that. Nothing was reported to me."

Third engineer del Rosario said the line was "weeping" slightly at about 8 a.m. but stopped after he wiped it with a rag. And Turcios, the oiler who worked with Montoya, denied that he was forced to leave the engine room because of smoke.

He further denied running to the ship's bridge to inform the officers about the fire --contrary to the testimony of two other witnesses -- and helping Montoya catch the spewing oil in buckets. At one point in Turcios' deposition, Lt. j.g. Buddy Reams, a Coast Guard investigator, was moved to say, "Mr. Turcios, I don't think you're telling the truth."
Capt. Salichos testified that he did not sound an alarm or order passengers to muster stations during the fire because everyone already was outside. He assumed his three announcements about "problems in the engine room" were understood, he said, "because all the passengers come out when I say."

Unlike the Wagners and the Osbornes, Richard and Fran Burgoon had taken and enjoyed several cruises before last spring. They had not, however, been on a Discovery ship; they wound up on the Discovery I as part of a condominium time-share promotion sponsored by a Fort Lauderdale firm called Vacation Break.

The first four-and-a-half hours of the May 8 voyage were upbeat and uneventful. Passengers gambled, sunned themselves and ate from copious buffets.

Then, about 12:30 p.m., the party was interrupted.

"We were in an inside passage, heading from the dining room to the rear of the ship when we smelled the smoke," Richard Burgoon said. "There was no alarm. One of the crew members ran past and said, `We have a fire,' and then another one said to him, `Don't say that. Be quiet.' "

Once the fire became common knowledge, Burgoon said, many passengers "were befuddled as to what to do. They were panicked. There were crying mothers trying to get their babies out of the way. One guy fell beside me; I thought he had a stroke. There was one huge mass of people"

The Burgoons fought their way up to fresh air and positioned themselves near a lifeboat. Richard Burgoon noticed that it was caked with rust and doubted that it could be lowered without a great deal of effort.
"We could see the island (three miles away)," he said, "but I said to myself, `If I have to swim, there's no way.' "

Fran Burgoon said the 26-year-old ship appeared to have been freshly painted. "Cosmetically, you would never have known there was anything wrong with it," she said. But when a crewman attempted to attach a fire hose to a valve, "it was so encrusted with paint that he had to get tools and other people to help him."

The water that initially spurted from the hose, she said, was "rust-colored. I can't imagine that hose was ever tested." (Bob Wagner described the discharge as a "black gunk.")

After he got back to California, Richard Burgoon reconstructed the fiasco in a long letter to Discovery Cruise Line, a copy of which he sent to the NTSB.

Emergency lighting in the darkened stairwell through which the passengers exited consisted largely of penlights held by the crew, Burgoon wrote. No help was provided to the disabled or parents of small children. The passengers were treated like "a herd of cattle."

In an Aug. 22 reply, NTSB Chairman Jim Hall wrote that the board did not intend to investigate the accident and that the Coast Guard was in charge. He did give a brief but intriguing history of the Discovery I, noting that it had, in a previous incarnation, been the Bahamian-flag Scandinavian Sea, which caught fire near Cape Canaveral, Fla., on March 9, 1984.

The ship was declared a "total constructive loss," sold and renamed the Venus Venturer, Hall wrote. It was sold again to Discovery Cruise Line and became the Discovery I, registered in Panama.
In a July 3 letter to Richard Burgoon, Discovery claims manager Andrew Heller minimized the importance of the May 2 fire drill ("I can assure you it is not like the real thing happening ... ") and insisted that during the fire "the crew did an exceptional job in protecting (sic) any loss of passenger life or any type of severe injuries."

Heller did apologize for any insensitive behavior exhibited by the crew -- charging for bottled water while passengers sweltered on deck, for example -- and offered the Burgoons a free cruise on another of the company's vessels, the Discovery Sun, the next time they are in South Florida.

"I don't think so," Fran Burgoon said.

The Coast Guard's official report on the Discovery I investigation will not be released until later this fall. "We have a really significant difference of opinion about what happened that day," the lead investigator, Lt. Bob Kirk of Miami, said of the crew interviews. "It's really complicated things."

Eric Ascher, a Miami-based representative of the Panamanian registry, said that his investigation also is incomplete and would not comment on preliminary findings.

Terrifying though it was to the passengers, the drama on the Discovery I had a happy ending. If the vessel had been 40 miles from Freeport when the engine room ignited instead of three -- and if, therefore, the crew of a nearby vessel, the Freewinds, had been unable to promptly assist with the firefighting -- the outcome might have been different.

Nor can the Discovery I fire be dismissed as an anomaly. Two foreign-flag cruise ships carrying predominantly American passengers have burned in the short time since May 8.
On July 6, the Bahamian-flag Golden Princess, bound for Vancouver, British Columbia, from San Francisco, sustained an engine-room fire that knocked out power for several hours but caused no injuries. The vessel, carrying 840 passengers and 420 crew members, had to be towed into Victoria, B.C. The cause of the fire is under investigation by the Coast Guard.

And on July 27, the laundry room of the Panamanian-flag Universe Explorer, en route from Juneau to Glacier Bay, Alaska, caught fire as the vessel sailed in the Lynn Canal, about 25 miles northwest of Juneau. Five crew members died, and 76 of the 730 passengers were injured; the NTSB is directing the investigation because the accident occurred in U.S. waters.

Among the crewmen injured was waiter Luis Sabio, 29. Sabio, a Honduran, said he was awakened in his cabin by the smell of smoke. "I try to get outside but I can't find the way," Sabio said.

He fell down a flight of stairs and was unconscious for about 45 minutes, all the while inhaling noxious fumes. Now recuperating at the home of his sister-in-law, Norma Fernandez, in the Miami suburb of Cutler Ridge, Sabio has trouble hearing, walking and understanding even simple questions.

"At night he can barely sleep," Fernandez said. "He wakes up in the middle of the night screaming."

Just how safe is the cruise industry? Quite safe, according to an October 1995 report by the Coast Guard Cruise Ship Safety Review Task Force.

The task force was created after four foreign-flag cruises ships, among them the Celebration, were involved in accidents in June and July of 1995. Only two of the119 cruise ships that visit or operate out of U.S. ports fly the American flag.
"Despite the recent incidents noted," the group said on Page 1 of its report, "there appears to be no evidence of trends or heightened risks associated with oceangoing cruise ships from U.S. ports."

On Page 65, however, is a list of 17 major cruise-ship accidents between 1985 and 1995. There were nine fires, six groundings and two collisions.

Although no American deaths were recorded, there were 69 injuries. Moreover, the report identifies 30 factors -- from crew unfamiliarity with firefighting equipment to language barriers -- that contributed to the accidents. Many recurred and would seem to qualify as trends, the comforting message on Page 1 notwithstanding.

Some of the biggest shortcomings were addressed -- on paper, at least -- in 1992 amendments to the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) convention, adopted in 1974 by the International Maritime Organization.

New and old ships are to be equipped with better fire-detection and firefighting equipment and have multiple escape routes and adequate emergency lighting. These measures, however, are being phased in and will not be fully in effect until 2010.

"Until all the vessels are totally retrofitted," said Barry Sweedler, director of the NTSB's Office of Safety Recommendations, "we still have a certain degree of hazard."

The NTSB and the Coast Guard have somewhat different frames of reference when it comes to cruise-ship safety. The Coast Guard's is the more optimistic.
Rear Adm. Card expressed confidence in the agency's Control Verification Program, under which U.S.-based, foreign-flag vessels are inspected on an annual and quarterly basis. (New vessels such as the Destiny are examined, at the owner's expense, before they leave the shipyard.)

"We see the crew and we see the crew run drills and we see the overall condition of the vessel," Card said. "We've improved our inspector training. We look at (a ship) earlier now than we used to and we look at it with more of a trained eye than before."

A 1991 law, which withstood a court challenge by two Dutch mariners, gave the Coast Guard clear authority to investigate accidents on foreign-flag cruise ships under certain circumstances -- when a vessel embarks or disembarks passengers in the United States, for example.

The law did not, however, improve the position of the NTSB, which tends to probe accidents aggressively and make blunt recommendations. Some shipowners find its methods unsettling.

"We're not sure we're seeing everything,"said the NTSB's Sweedler. "The reporting requirements for foreign-flag vessels are not as complete as they would be for other modes of transportation or if they were U.S. carriers."

Former NTSB chairman Burnett, now practicing law in Clinton, Ark., is disappointed that the board to this day cannot do its job, unfettered, on a foreign passenger ship. (It can be invited by the Coast Guard to investigate but must follow Coast Guard rules in such cases rather than its own.)

"We tried to deal with this right after the first Celebration accident," Burnett said. "There was a bill before Congress, but it was basically stopped by the cruise industry."

Conflicts between the NTSB and the Coast Guard have surfaced in recent years. As of last December, the Coast Guard had implemented a smaller proportion (72 percent) of NTSB recommendations than any other agency within the U.S. Department of Transportation. The Federal Aviation Administration, in contrast, had implemented 87 percent, as had the Federal Highway Administration.

"The Coast Guard is a larger agency with a military mission," Sweedler said. "They have a tremendous amount of political clout, and they feel less threatened (by the board) than the FAA or the Highway Administration."

The Coast Guard, for example, rejected an NTSB recommendation that any passenger vessel carrying more than 500 people on international routes be required to have a professional firefighter aboard. The Coast Guard's position was that while it concurred with the spirit of the proposal, it considered existing IMO standards to be sufficient.

"That one is still disturbing to us,"Sweedler said.

Siding with a number of cruise lines, the Coast Guard also disagreed with an NTSB recommendation that life jackets on cruise ships be available for passengers at muster stations as well as in cabins. The Coast Guard reasoned that "an attempt to distribute and don large numbers of life jackets at a crowded muster station could lead to confusion ... "

Said former NTSB chairman Kolstad: "It seemed to us that it was a no-brainer to have two sets of life jackets."

For now, the NTSB must abide such rejections. The Coast Guard is the official U.S. representative at meetings of the policy-making International Maritime Organization in London. The NTSB has no voice, a situation that evokes a feeling of helplessness among some board employees --especially as the IMO ponders an accident-investigation protocol that would apply to the United States and the organization's 152 other members.

As long ago as 1980, after a fire gutted the Italian-registered Angelina Lauro in the U.S. Virgin Islands, injuring two, the NTSB was clamoring for improved crew training on cruise ships. It found, among other things, that "effective control and coordination of shipboard firefighting by the crew was never established."

To Richard Burgoon, who watched the Discovery I burn 16 years later, the observation sounds eerily familiar.
"I think it's ludicrous that we have foreign ships like this coming into American ports and making a profit here," he said. "I can find no justification for anyone in this country to allow a ship like this to sail."


"Those who desire to give up Freedom in order to gain security, will not have, nor do they deserve, either one." - Benjamin Franklin
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Incident illustrates potential for disaster in shipping industry

This is part seven of eleven of this miniseries towards the merchant and foreign mariners.

Incident illustrates potential for disaster in shipping industry

Copyright 1996 Houston Chronicle

UNTIL the U.S. Coast Guard boarded his ship on Aug. 16, 1995, Stefanos Chatzakis was an inconspicuous Greek captain, one of thousands of foreign seafarers who come to the Port of Houston each year.

After the boarding --a fortuitous action that may well have kept the New Empress from blowing up in the Houston Ship Channel -- Chatzakis lost his anonymity and may have gained a place in U.S. legal history.

In an unusual and possibly unprecedented move by the U.S. attorney, Chatzakis, 60, was charged with criminal negligence for allowing the New Empress, a Liberian-flag tanker, to carry volatile ethyl alcohol instead of the molasses and tallow it customarily held. He was arrested, spent a night in jail and fled after a federal magistrate chose not to detain him.

Chatzakis has been a fugitive for more than a year and may never again be touched by American authorities.
Still, U.S. Attorney Gaynelle Griffin Jones has declared a symbolic victory.

"Unfortunately, he did flee, but news of this prosecution has had wide circulation among foreign vessel captains and the whole maritime industry,"Jones said. "We had an egregious situation, a serious risk to the safety of not only foreign crewmen but our port and our environment."

Coast Guard officials emphasize that ships as menacing as the New Empress rarely turn up in Houston. They say the high values of the principal cargoes handled at the port -- crude oil, gasoline, specialty chemicals -- are motivation enough for most shipowners to operate as safely as possible.

Every so often, however, a vessel appears with defects so pervasive and severe that even the most jaded Coast Guard officer takes notice.

The New Empress, built in 1971 and authorized to carry only nonexplosive products, was such a ship. The ingredients for disaster -- alcohol and multiple ignition sources -- were present in abundance when it docked in Houston 13 months ago.

"The piping systems carrying (alcohol) on deck were leaking,"said Coast Guard Cmdr. Mike Bechtel, a member of the initial boarding team. "They knew it was dripping but they didn't repair it. It was just dripping into these pans."
Other lapses were noted. The hatches atop the cargo tanks were open, permitting dangerous venting. A six-inch hole in the wall of the crew quarters created by the removal of a pipe allowed vapor from the deck to enter and potentially ignite. The ship had the wrong type of electrical equipment and holes in the bulkheads separating the tanks.

"Some of their problems may have been out of ignorance," said Coast Guard Capt. Kevin Eldridge. "But the practices they were following showed that if it was ignorance, it was gross ignorance. It was certainly a vast disregard for safety."

Chatzakis, according to the Coast Guard, was combative.

"As I reviewed some of the vessel's certificates and tried to obtain some of the vessel's characteristics, I was repeatedly interrupted by the captain," Lt. j.g. Scott Bergeron wrote in a report. "Every time he left he would go to personally oversee mundane functions by the crew. Continually a crew member would come by to ask the master questions and he responded in a loud and irate manner."

The inspection took place only because a shipping agent in Houston, Peter Carter Sr., requested it on behalf of the Greek operator. Demonstrating either naivete or a great deal of nerve, the operator wanted the Coast Guard's permission to carry hazardous cargo -- after the alcohol, to be used in rum, was already aboard. A disenchanted Carter resigned soon afterward.
All told, the New Empress spent an extraordinary 48 days in Houston, where repairs were made, and Galveston, where the alcohol was lightered onto a barge. Neither the Coast Guard nor the Liberian flag administration would let the ship, which had a 30-man crew, sail during this period.

It is unclear whether Chatzakis is still at sea or why the New Empress was carrying forbidden cargo. Like many foreign ships, it was insulated by several layers of management.

Even the U.S. attorney was confused. The New Empress' American representative, M.T. Maritime Management Corp. of Westport, Conn., was charged along with Chatzakis before prosecutors realized that the vessel's true operator was Michail A. Karageorgis S.A. of Piraeus, Greece. The complaint against M.T. Maritime was dropped, and none was filed against Karageorgis.

The U.S. attorney would not comment on the Greek company, but legal experts say it is difficult to prosecute a foreign firm that lacks a significant U.S. presence. A Karageorgis employee referred Chronicle questions about the New Empress to Houston attorney Mark Cohen, who declined to comment.

The Coast Guard expresses confidence in the targeting system it uses to decide which foreign vessels to inspect: Points are assigned based on perceived risk -- such as owners or flags with troubled histories --and the ships with the most points take priority.

During the first six months of this year, 339 vessels were boarded in Houston, and 34 were detained for safety reasons. Four of the 34 had what were characterized as life-threatening deficiencies.
The Coast Guard, however, cannot board every ship -- it gets to about one in five --and cannot anticipate the behavior of every rogue captain. Inspectors would not have boarded the New Empress in Houston without agent Carter's call because the vessel had been examined just weeks earlier -- when it was carrying molasses and tallow -- and found to be in reasonably good shape.

"The targeting system is somewhat imperfect," Cmdr. Bechtel said.

No one can say, of course, whether the 14,780-ton New Empress would have exploded in port if the alcohol had stayed on board. The prospect is chilling, especially considering what happened on Galveston Bay 49 years ago.

At 9 a.m. on April 16, 1947 a French freighter, the Grandcamp, blew up in the Port of Texas City after its load of ammonium nitrate fertilizer caught fire. Some of the flaming debris floated over to the High Flyer, an American ship docked 600 feet away, and ignited its cargo of ammonium nitrate and sulfur.

The High Flyer exploded at 1:11 a.m. on April 17. In all, nearly 600 people were killed and thousands were injured. More than 1,000 homes and businesses were destroyed or damaged in the nation's worst industrial disaster.

Some version of Texas City might have been replayed in Houston had the New Empress not been boarded -- or in Charleston, S.C., on Jan. 8, 1992, had the Coast Guard not discovered 866 pounds ofloose magnesium phosphide in the No. 1 cargo hold of the Santa Clara, a Panamanian-flag container ship.
"Less than three ounces of this product in water would easily create a fireball the size of a school bus," said Capt. Dick Bennis, part of the Coast Guard's emergency-response team in Charleston and now chief ofthe agency's Office of Response in Washington.

Authorities were able to close the cargo hatch just before it rained and later moved the Santa Clara to a remote anchorage, where the chemical was safely removed. The vessel sailed away on Feb. 10 -- after the owner was forced to reimburse the U.S. government for cleanup costs, which exceeded $1 million -- and has not returned to this country.

The incident caused the Coast Guard to rethink its port state control program, intended to improve safety aboard foreign vessels that call at American ports. At the time the Santa Clara appeared in Charleston, the program was limited to tankers and cruise ships. With strong congressional backing, it was broadened in May 1994 to include cargo vessels.

The Coast Guard also established, at the same time, a special inspection program for container ships.

A recent report on that program says that inspectors have found "steadily increasing levels of risk" from leaking containers at U.S. ports.

"Since 1990," the report says, "both the frequency of hazardous material container incidents and the average amount of hazardous material spilled have increased."

The Coast Guard averted disaster with the Santa Clara and the New Empress through a combination of luck and perseverance. Both are held out, for good reason, as success stories.

And yet with 80 percent of the foreign ships in U.S. ports going uninspected and the Coast Guard downsizing, smugness seems unwise.
"Once you take the pressure off," Vice Adm. Gene Henn said last spring, shortly before he retired, "you're going to lose all the progress you've made."

"Those who desire to give up Freedom in order to gain security, will not have, nor do they deserve, either one." - Benjamin Franklin
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Ship Shape

This is part eight of eleven of this miniseries towards the merchant and foreign mariners.

U.N. agency takes on the complex task of regulating the far-flung shipping industry

Copyright 1996 Houston Chronicle

LONDON -- Shipping overlord William O'Neil doesn't cower. That wouldn't fly with the scoundrels who run freighters until they fall apart or overload battered ferries.

Nor does he bully.

The good operators would rebel and the bad ones would ignore him anyway.

As secretary-general of the United Nations' International Maritime Organization, O'Neil must strike a balance. He can be neither too tough nor too soft as he tries to nudge the notoriously unmanageable maritime industry toward improved safety and environmental performance.

Picture an exclusive, slightly eccentric boarding school whose reputation has diminished. O'Neil is its headmaster. Some of his students are brilliant, others dimwitted. Some are dishonorable, others virtuous. All are headstrong. O'Neil somehow must bring them into line.
In his office on the south bank of the Thames, O'Neil, a Canadian, routinely receives word of bulk carriers that have broken in two, ferries that have capsized, cruise ships that have caught fire and tankers that have grounded. All of these are his charges, as are the many thousands of ships that never have accidents through decades of service.

Along with flag states, insurers, national regulators and the 11 major classification societies (ship inspection services), the once-torpid and newly energized IMO is pressing to clean up an industry that often generates unflattering publicity.

"There's no longer an acceptance of substandard ships as just a way of life," said O'Neil, 69, who came to the IMO in 1990 after serving as president of the St. Lawrence Seaway Authority. "We can't just wring our hands and say, `This is terrible.' "

When O'Neil took over, the industry was an unqualified mess. The Exxon Valdez just months earlier had spilled 11 million gallons of oil in Alaska's Prince William Sound. Two ferry catastrophes in 1987 alone -- the capsizing of the Herald of Free Enterprise off the Belgian coast and the collision between the Dona Paz and a tanker near Manila -- had claimed more than 3,000 lives.

Even as O'Neil settled in, bulk carriers loaded with iron ore and other heavy cargoes were coming apart with startling regularity. They were, as he put it, "disappearing without a word."

Six bulkers went down off the coast of western Australia between January 1990 and August 1991, giving rise to an inquiry by a committee of the Australian Parliament.

The committee produced a report called "Ships of Shame" that chronicled what its authors called "the sickening state of affairs associated with the operation of substandard ships." It documented sexual abuse and beatings of sailors, the issuance of phony licenses and a host of other atrocities.
All told, 97 bulkers sank worldwide between 1990 and 1994, killing 532 seafarers. Most of the vessels were more than 15 years old; nearly half of the accidents were blamed on structural failure, rough weather, or a combination of the two.

This, O'Neil decided, wouldn't do. Along with the International Association of Classification Societies (IACS) and others in the industry, the IMO began to analyze the incidents not as random events but as pieces of a very large puzzle.

Ultimately, attention turned to the ships' ages, the tremendous pounding they took during cargo loading (especially when the cargo was iron ore), their enormous size (which made thorough inspections all but impossible) and the growing use in hulls of high-tensile steel, which is thinner and lighter than steel found in ships 20 or 25 years ago. The new steel saves fuel and allows for more cargo but is more susceptible to corrosion and fatigue.

In July 1995,the IMO prescribed an enhanced inspection program for bulkers and tankers at least five years old. Although it is too soon to draw any conclusions about its impact, this is the sort of initiative O'Neil favors: identify a specific problem, enlist the industry's help and fashion a decisive response.

"O'Neil has made the IMO a good deal more powerful," said Michael Grey, a columnist for Lloyd's List, a maritime daily in London. "Before him there were a lot of well-meaning people constrained by issues of sovereignty. They tolerated members who would not implement conventions."

Conventions -- agreements that apply to the IMO's 153 member nations -- fall into two broad categories: crew and passenger safety and environmental protection. Among the most prominent are the 1974 International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (known as SOLAS) and the 1973 International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships (MARPOL).
These and the 38 other IMO conventions and protocols cover, in theory, every major maritime hazard, from fire to the dumping of shipboard garbage.

In fact, the IMO cannot enforce them; only its members can. Some of the oldest ones --Honduras, for example, which joined in 1954, and Romania, which joined in 1965 --continue to turn up on blacklists compiled by the U.S. Coast Guard and its counterparts in Europe. Ships flying their flags tend to be detained for safety reasons at rates far above the world average.

"If a country ratifies (a convention) it's expected they'll abide by it," O'Neil said. "But we know quite well that some don't."Peer pressure, he has learned, can be useful in such cases.

The IMO doesn't have the unconditionalsupport of the United States. When Congress, reacting to the Exxon Valdez disaster, passed the rigorous Oil Pollution Act of 1990, many IMO members were chafed by the departure from more flexible but not necessarily inferior international standards. The act created virtually unlimited liability for tanker owners that spill oil in U.S. waters and required that tankers be equipped with double hulls by 2015.

"The United States, for a variety of reasons, decided to go unilateral on oil pollution," Grey said. "It has alienated the world community."

American tightfistedness also has taken its toll.

Not on good terms with the U.N. in general, the United States played hardball during debate on IMO's 1996-97 biennial budget. The IMO wanted a 10.3-percent increase over the previous two-year budget; the U.S. Department of State insisted on zero growth.
IMO members finally settled on a 6.7 percent increase to about $55 million, an amount that did not allow the organization to keep pace with inflation. It was forced to close the five-year-old Oil Spill Coordination Center and postpone indefinitely the creation of a worldwide ship accident data base.

The irony was that the data base had been proposed by the Coast Guard as a means of identifying casualty trends -- whether certain types of ships were having more problems than others, whether more accidents were occurring during certain seasons, etc.

"The U.S. comes to IMO meetings and raises its voice, then goes and does its own thing," said Matthew Marshall, technical director of the Institute of London Underwriters, a trade association for maritime insurers.

Differences with the Americans aside, O'Neil thinks he sees progress.

"Historically, the attitude in IMO has been that new standards would apply only to new ships," he said. "But in the past five years we've been able to bring in existing ships. Changing that was a major breakthrough because ships are staying in service longer."

More changes are coming.

An updated International Convention on Standards of Training, Certification and Watchkeeping for Seafarers (STCW) is to be phased in, beginning in February. IMO members will have to demonstrate the proficiency of officers on their ships; if they cannot, they face economic isolation from more responsible nations.
On July 1, 1998, the International Safety Management Code comes into play for three categories of vessels: cruise and other passenger ships, tankers and high-speed ferries, of the sort popular in the North Sea. Owners of these vessels must affirm in writing that certain standards will be maintained "from the top of the corporate structure down through the ship," O'Neil said. "It removes the total responsibility for safety from the master."

Noncompliance could cause a ship to be denied entry to a port. "It will take a little bit of time," O'Neil said, "but both of these will show some benefits."

He is not naive enough, however, to believe that an obscure U.N. agency can transform a global industry whose players are accustomed to operating out of public view and aren't keen on regulation. Despite his efforts, the sobering statistics continue to land on his desk.

During the first six months of this year, according to the Institute of London Underwriters, 730 sailors and passengers died or were reported missing as a result of maritime accidents. A single event -- the capsizing of the overloaded ferry Bukoba in Tanzania's Lake Victoria in May -- took 543 lives.

Twenty-six general cargo ships and 11 tankers were counted among the 53 total losses. And the institute's numbers represent only vessels 500 gross tons or larger, leaving out untold smaller freighters, ferries and fishing boats that met their demise.

After the 843-ton Kathleen D, a Honduran-flag freighter, sank in the Gulf of Mexico last Jan. 7, killing eight of nine crewmen, Coast Guard Capt. Joseph Kuchin of Mobile, Ala., wrote a lengthy memorandum to Adm. Robert North, then commander of the Coast Guard's 8th District in New Orleans.
The Miami-based vessel, which had been detained in Mobile for 11 days immediately prior to its sinking, reminded Kuchin of many other Caribbean "island hoppers" he had seen over the years. Its loss clearly struck a chord with him and brought home the limitations of port state control, the most effective tool anyone has found to deal with rickety ships.

"The so-called safety nets for these vessels (owner, flag, class) are, in many cases, little more than servants of commerce,"Kuchin wrote in the Feb. 22 memo. "As a result, our own efforts have been driven to focus on attainment of bare minimums --call them tokens -- of the appearance of safety (lifejackets, flares, etc.) -- while the real issues of safety (watertight integrity, system condition and operability, crew competence, etc.) are largely inapproachable because the primary safety nets are in shambles. The bottom line is that when these vessels finally do sail from our ports, they are often still substandard."

Kuchin was venting the frustration of a man whose employer is at its lowest staffing level in 30 years and shrinking. Given that the Coast Guard and similar marine-safety agencies lack the manpower to inspect every vessel that comes into port, others --classification societies, insurers, unions -- must try to take up the slack.

This lesson was learned the hard way. When the bulkers were going down in droves in the early 1990s, finger-pointing was epidemic. London-based IACS -- representing large classification societies such as Lloyd's Register and the American Bureau of Shipping -- was a prime target because its members had vouched for the safety of these and other vessels they had inspected as surrogates for flag states. (The owners, of course, had paid for the inspections, and were in a position to exert influence.)

By July 1993 a chastened IACS had a fortified inspection program in place for bulkers and tankers; two years later the IMO threw its weight behind the idea.
"I would not deny that if perhaps we'd been on the ball we would have done more earlier," said James Bell, permanent secretary of IACS. Still, he said, not all of the criticism was justified.

"The world merchant marine went through a pretty tough time in the 1980s,"Bell said. "There was obviously a recession and an excess of supply, and some shipowners cut back on their marginal and discretionary costs, meaning they didn't do maintenance. Ships began to suffer casualties, and I have to say that (classification societies were) a useful scapegoat, whipping boy, under those circumstances. Nobody was actually standing up and saying, `Hold on a minute. That's really not our responsibility. That's the owner's responsibility.' "

Although the IACS members have tightened up, dozens of third-rate classification societies are peddling their services more cheaply. Most do such a perfunctory job of inspecting ships -- if they inspect at all --that the Coast Guard targets shipowners who use them.

Some flag states and liability insurers, consequently, have taken matters into their own hands.

Norway, for example, wants to be reasonably confident that ships flying its flag are seaworthy. Although the American Bureau of Shipping is authorized to act on the Norwegians' behalf, "they'll come in with a list of ships under their register and go all through our records, then they'll inspect the ships," said Frank Iarossi, chairman and chief executive officer of ABS Americas in Houston. "They double-check."

Stung by mounting losses, the world's largest marine property and indemnity insurance group -- the Bermuda-based United Kingdom Mutual Steam Ship Assurance Association, better known as the UK P&I Club -- announced in 1990 that it would begin inspecting the ships it insures against crew and passenger accidents, cargo loss and pollution.
An internal analysis had revealed that two-thirds of the club's major claims were the result of human error. Inspectors, therefore, looked closely at such things as crew training and management safety policies.

In 1995 the club reported that only 9 percent of the ships it had surveyed were unsafe. Most of the problems pertained to maintenance and safety procedures and equipment.

All in all, the club said, standards among its members were "encouragingly high."

This hopeful message was reinforced by Chris Horrocks, secretary-general of the International Shipping Federation, an owners' group in London. "It isn't as bleak out there as some commentators tend to suggest," Horrocks said in an interview.

Officials with the International Transport Workers Federation, a London-based conglomeration of trade unions, sneer at such assessments. If anything, they argue, standards have slipped.

"Everybody's going to sink down to the lowest common denominator," said John Sansone, the ITF's North American coordinator in Washington.

Since 1948 the ITF has dogged shipowners who hire Third World crews and (in the federation's view) underpay and endanger them with the tacit or explicit approval of open registries -- "flags of convenience." It makes use of several tactics: union boycotts that keep vessels from being loaded or unloaded, media blitzes and ship arrests --court-ordered detentions arising from unpaid crew wages.

The ITF can claim many victories. Often, however, it seems to be putting out fires, resolving one conflict only to have 10 more pop up.
The federation's high-profile Flag of Convenience Campaign has failed, Horrocks said. "The number of open registries goes up year after year."

Even the ITF's leader acknowledges that the oblique nature of shipping limits the group's effectiveness.

"There are some really nasty people out there," said secretary-general David Cockroft, "but it's mainly the system that's the problem. It's a kind of monster which no one feels they've got control over."

Gert-Jan Harmsen, an ITF inspector in Rotterdam, the world's busiest port, tells many distressing stories. One, in particular, speaks to the despair that many of the world's merchant sailors must feel.

Last winter, Harmsen was questioning the crew of a wretched freighter that was literally falling apart from corrosion.
"I asked them, `Why didn't you want to leave this coffin?' " he said. "It turned out they had an ITF agreement that would pay their families $60,000 if they lost their lives. That was why they didn't leave."

"Those who desire to give up Freedom in order to gain security, will not have, nor do they deserve, either one." - Benjamin Franklin
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Old 20-04-2006, 16:56   #11
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Dangers Afloat

This is part nine of eleven of this miniseries towards the merchant and foreign mariners.

Safety rules will be tightened for passenger vessels

Copyright 1996 Houston Chronicle

NEW ORLEANS -- The perils of Algiers Point are obvious even to the untrained eye.

Here the Mississippi River, a third of a mile wide, makes a 90-degree turn as it runs through downtown New Orleans. The current is often swift, and shipping traffic -- a tangle of passenger boats, tankers and barges -- is heavy. In high water, a 175-foot-deep hole known as "The Boil" creates a whirlpool effect that can turn a vessel around.

It is possible to contemplate any number of catastrophic accidents in this setting, where tourists share the river with hard-nosed mariners. The Flamingo, a floating casino, could be rammed by a breakaway barge, or radio miscommunication could cause the Canal Street ferry to be blindsided by a tanker. In either case, hundreds of people could find themselves in water that gets below 40 degrees in winter. Even those wearing life jackets could succumb quickly to hypothermia.

The U.S. Coast Guard classifies such accidents as "low-probability, high-consequence." The chance, however remote, that one of them might occur has persuaded the agency to strengthen lifesaving requirements for about half of the nation's 5,700 passenger vessels.

The new rules, scheduled to take effect in 2001, vary widely, depending on vessel size, route and water temperature. The Coast Guard has been refining them since 1984 but continues to take flak from two distinct camps.

The National Transportation Safety Board wants the industry held to a more rigorous standard. Vessel owners loathe the idea of further regulation.

The regulatory patchwork falls far short of what the NTSB and other marine-safety advocates consider essential: life rafts or other out-of-the-water protection for every passenger on every vessel, big or small, oceangoing or inland.
"I know what it's like to be under way in winter," said Ray Bollinger, who has worked as an excursion boat pilot and in other capacities on the Mississippi in New Orleans for 31 years. "Anything goes wrong and I'm going to be stuffing men and women and children into life jackets, and half of them don't have a snowball's chance in hell of surviving in that cold water.

"Most people get on these vessels assuming there's some kind of (survival) craft for them," Bollinger said. "They're wrong. We have a whole bunch of inland Titanics waiting to happen in this country."

In a Feb. 6 letter to the Coast Guard's commandant, Adm. Robert Kramek, NTSB Chairman Jim Hall noted: "People have died of hypothermia in the Gulf of Mexico, in the waters of Southern California and the Caribbean, as well as in northern waters. Clearly, hypothermia is a significant cause of death in marine accidents. Without out-of-the-water flotation, such deaths will needlessly continue to occur."

Owners of the largest affected vessels -- ferries, floating casinos and excursion boats -- are unhappy with the Coast Guard as well, although for a different reason. They complain that the rules are pointless and will prove costly.

"This company has been in business 38 years and we've never put anyone in the water," said Elmer Schmidt, director of marine operations for Pittsburgh-based President Casinos, which operates 11 gambling, party and shuttle boats in Pittsburgh, St. Louis, Davenport, Iowa and Gary, Ind. "In the city of Pittsburgh, if my vessels were to sink and everyone went to the top deck, they wouldn't get their feet wet."

No fatalities in 40 years

The nation's largest ferry system has operated inWashington state's Puget Sound and adjoining waters for 40 years without a passenger death, said chief naval architect Stan Stumbo. "We're asking the Coast Guard, `What are you trying to improve?' " Stumbo said.
A Washington ferry that holds 2,500 people now must provide rafts or lifeboats for only 36. Under the Coast Guard plan, that number would rise to 1,675.

The Coast Guard has long required all passenger vessels to carry enough life jackets for everyone on board. Life jackets, however, offer no protection against hypothermia, the stupefying effects of which can be felt in a matter of minutes in cold water.

Bollinger, 48, was swept into the Mississippi near Venice, La., as a young Coast Guard petty officer during a winter search-and-rescue mission in 1968. He spent only a few minutes in the water before being pulled out by the crew of a passing boat; still, he got a taste of hypothermia.

"It just takes your breath away,"Bollinger said. "You get kind of numb. The biggest effect isn't real pain, it's a loss of mental function. You're in a complete fog. You're incapable of helping yourself."

Most passenger vessels operating in the United States today conform to such exacting standards that they are unlikely to sink or incinerate. The Coast Guard's thinking has been: Keep people out of the water, and the matter of hypothermia becomes moot. And indeed, with a few exceptions, the industry's safety record has been good.

Gambling boats proliferate

Five years ago, however, the first of the inland gambling boats appeared, and now there are about 50 of these vessels on Southern and Midwestern rivers and lakes.

The largest of them holds 2,500 people. The stakes of a single accident at, say, Algiers Point have risen considerably.
The issue is how to keep victims of such an accident dry until they can be rescued. Lifeboats and inflatable rafts work best, but they cost at least $5,000 apiece and must be serviced annually. Trained crew members are required to load and deploy them properly.

For a big vessel, the cumulative cost would be substantial -- and, it would seem, unnecessary if the vessel operates on a well-traveled river, lake or bay. People forced into the water presumably would be rescued quickly by nearby craft or could swim to shore.

A young, fit Bollinger, however, was so addled during his brush with hypothermia that he was unable to swim 50 yards to the river bank. A child or an old person surely would have fared worse.

And there is reason to believe that an accident involving even a modest-sized inland passenger vessel would tax the search-and-rescue capabilities of emergency-response authorities.

An exercise in disaster

A January 1994 exercise conducted by the Coast Guard on the Mississippi in New Orleans, for example, was a debacle.

The idea was to simulate a collision between a large cargo ship and an excursion boat carrying 200 passengers. Blocks of wood were thrown into the river to represent people, and only 25 were recovered within 30 minutes.

A table published by the federal government shows that the life-threatening effects of hypothermia -- exhaustion or unconsciousness -- can occur in 30 to 60 minutes if the water temperature is between 40 and 50 degrees and in 15 to 30 minutes if the temperature is between 32 and 40.
Experience indicates that two hours in even 65-degree water can be incapacitating.

In a report prepared after the 1994 mock disaster, Coast Guard Capt. A.S. Tangeman wrote: "I fear that the outcome of an actual incident similar to the one depicted in this exercise and measured in terms of lives saved would be horrific."

Recent drills have gone more smoothly in the Louisiana cities of Baton Rouge and Lake Charles, both home to gambling boats. The Coast Guard seems convinced that certain types of vessels do not need a full complement of rafts or lifeboats to be safe, and this thinking --to the NTSB's dismay -- is reflected in the new regulations.

The NTSB first asked the Coast Guard to require out-of-the-water protection for all passenger vessels in 1985. It has kept up the pressure.

In a 1989 study, the board lamented the Coast Guard's "failure to complete action in a timely manner"and listed a number of accidents in which hypothermia was or could have been a killer.

Four years later, another accident underscored the hazards of cold water. On Dec. 5, 1993, the wooden-hulled El Toro II, a charter fishing boat, sank in Chesapeake Bay during a storm. Although all 23 people aboard were rescued, two passengers and a young deckhand died in hospitals from the effects of hypothermia.

NTSB closes the books

The NTSB's pleas to the Coast Guard have gone largely unheeded for 11 years, and the board is considering abandoning its lifesaving recommendation, filing it under "closed-unacceptable action."
"The Coast Guard allows you to just be in the water, hanging on to the side of a float, and we don't think that's right," said Barry Sweedler, chief of the NTSB's Office of Safety Recommendations. "My own view is that they get pressure from the operators of these vessels. The operators don't want to go to the expense, and I think the Coast Guard is swayed by them."

Jack Deck, a retired Coast Guard officer in Ohio who participated in hypothermia experiments on the Great Lakes in the early 1970s, also has a dim view of the rulemaking process.

"The present Coast Guard administration is trying to reach accommodations with industry through partnerships," Deck said. "Quite frankly, I think this is a Boy Scout approach, and it doesn't work. The Coast Guard is a law enforcement and regulatory agency. It's not the Boy Scouts."

The Coast Guard's position is that modern casualty statistics offer little justification for the sort of blanket regulation sought by the NTSB. Indeed, it has been 20 years since the United States experienced a major passenger-vessel accident.

It happened on the Mississippi near Luling, La., about 26 miles upriver from Algiers Point, on Oct. 20, 1976. The George Prince, a state ferry, was struck portside and upended by the Frosta, a Norwegian tanker. Seventy-seven ferry passengers died.

A Coast Guard investigation placed the blame on the George Prince's captain, who, "due to complacency, fatigue and/or the effects of alcohol consumption ... failed to detect the approaching SS Frosta until seconds before the collision."

Although there have been a number of domestic passenger-vessel accidents since 1976, none has approached the severity of the George Prince. Most have involved older, wooden charter fishing vessels.
The Passenger Vessel Association, which represents about 300 operators, makes note of this fact at every opportunity. In an Oct. 30 letter to the Coast Guard's Marine Safety Council, PVA technical and safety consultant Peter Lauridsen demanded that the proposed lifesaving rules for the biggest vessels "be withdrawn immediately" in acknowledgement of "the impeccable safety record of our domestic passenger vessel industry."

Lauridsen's argument would seem to have merit. In a 1991 study of small-vessel casualties, however, the Coast Guard's top lifesaving official offered a caveat.

Low chance, but high risk

"The loss of a large passenger vessel is a rare event," wrote Robert Markle, "but one which could result in a large loss of life it it were to occur. Very low-probability, high-consequence accidents are impossible to predict. Statistical models are not meaningful."

To be sure, there's been no shortage of close calls. On Dec. 12, 1985, for instance, the Mississippi Queen, a steamboat with overnight accommodations, collided with the towboat Crimson Glory on the Mississippi between New Orleans and Baton Rouge.

No one went into the river. But the Mississippi Queen had inflatable rafts for only 13 percent of its passengers. And anyone who had entered the water without a raft "would have had difficulty swimming to shore in the strong 4- to 6-mph river current and the (52-degree) water temperature, a temperature at which prolonged exposure would lead to hypothermia and perhaps death," the NTSB said in its 1989 study.

Bolivar ferry concerns

More recently in Galveston, there have been problems with the state-run Bolivar ferry system, used by 6.8 million people last year. One of the six ferries, the 19-year-old Gibb Gilchrest, has experienced six failures of its propulsion-control system in the past two years and has hit the dock three times.

"They've had an unacceptably high rate of failures on that vessel,"said Lt. Cdr. Greg Buie with the Coast Guard in Galveston. "You lose power and you lose the ability to maneuver."

Loss of power is a chilling prospect on the ferries' 2.7-mile route, which takes them through the heavily traveled waterway known as Bolivar Roads. Collisions are possible, as evidenced by the Sept. 22 ramming of a small fishing boat by the ferry Dewitt C. Greer.

A valve malfunction had caused the Greer's steering-control system to lock, and "the captain had no control whatsoever," said D.K. Daniel, the ferry system's operations manager. "It was an absolute freakish happening."

The fishing boat was badly damaged, although no one on either vessel was hurt. The faulty valve on the Greer has been replaced, and the Gilchrest has been taken out of service until an engineering firm can find the source of its mystifying propulsion failures.

The Bolivar ferry mishaps lend credence to the view that it is better to have too much lifesaving equipment than not enough. What if the Greer had struck a tanker instead of a fishing boat? And what if such a collision had happened in January instead of September?

"In the wintertime it does get cold enough down here for hypothermia to be a concern," said Coast Guard Lt. Perry Mackey in Galveston.
Owners of the nation's 5,500 or so "small" passenger vessels -- all of which are under 100 gross tons but some of which still hold hundreds of people, thanks to creative design --have voiced little opposition to the new lifesaving rules because they are more flexible than what the Coast Guard was proposing in 1994.

At that time it appeared that virtually all of these vessels would have to carry enough inflatable buoyant apparatus -- rafts without canopies or supplies -- to accommodate all their passengers.

After the industry objected, the Coast Guard agreed that there should be exemptions. A dinner-cruise boat operating in San Francisco Bay, for example, would be allowed to carry life floats -- rectangular devices with net bottoms --rather than the more expensive rafts. People hanging on to such floats would get wet but, the reasoning went, probably wouldn't be in the water very long.

Granting exemptions

A charter fishing boat operating in the frigid Pacific, far off the Oregon coast, would have to carry rafts, as would other vessels on isolated, cold-water routes. Some vessels would have to provide out-of-the-water flotation for all passengers, others for a certain percentage.

The granting of exemptions amounted to a "huge concession on the part of the Coast Guard," said Lt. Eric Christensen, director of the small-vessel rule-making project. "What we did was, we focused on cold water."

The industry group that remains indignant consists of owners of the nation's 161 biggest passenger vessels -- most of the floating casinos and the larger ferries and excursion boats.
For rule-making purposes, the Coast Guard has segregated these from the other passenger vessels because of the larger numbers of people they carry. The plan is to make them provide rafts or lifeboats for 67 percent of their passengers; most currently cover 10 percent or fewer.

The requirement could be waived if the vessel owner submitted a detailed contingency plan that met with local Coast Guard approval. The fear among some owners is that such plans would be subjected to unreasonable scrutiny.

On the bridge of the country's largest floating casino -- the 2,500-passenger Grand Palais, which sails an easy two-mile route on Lake Charles -- Capt. Mike Lombardo questioned the logic of equipping the 360-foot vessel with more rafts.

"You could spit to land from anyplace on our route," said Lombardo, director of marine operations for Isle of CapriCasino, which owns the Grand Palais and the 2,000-passenger Crown Casino.

Marine-safety experts point out, however, that gambling boats are not like other vessels. The expansive gaming areas of the Grand Palais, for example, lack windows and have the same frenetic atmosphere as hotel casinos.

Passengers on such vessels tend to immerse themselves in gambling and may even forget they are afloat. At a recent sea-survival conference in Galveston, John Ayer, a Seattle excursion-boat captain, presented the findings of a Coast Guard-industry study of gambling boats and other high-capacity vessels.

Ayer explained how passengers on a boat like the Grand Palais could easily become disoriented by alcohol and the "cacophony" of slot machines. "There's almost no indication of movement on these boats,"he said. "Everything on board focuses your attention inward. There's little exterior deck space." The issue of crew competence

The competence of the gambling boats' crew members -- very few of whom are professional mariners --also is a worry. Duke Schneider, a Houston maritime consultant who specializes in emergency procedures, has been summoned to train crews on six of these vessels in the past two years.

"I've been on gaming boats that carry 1,000 passengers, and they'll only have a 10-person nautical crew," Schneider said. His task in such cases is to teach waiters, dealers and security officers how to get passengers to safety in the event of a fire, collision or grounding.

One training session in particular -- on a vessel Schneider declined to identify -- was telling. As Schneider was discussing the importance of orderly passenger evacuation in a crisis, a crewman announced, "Look, I'm a dealer. If you think I'm going to stick around, you're crazy."

"Those who desire to give up Freedom in order to gain security, will not have, nor do they deserve, either one." - Benjamin Franklin
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New rules pushing towboat industry

This is part ten of eleven of this miniseries towards the merchant and foreign mariners.

Aftershocks still being felt in wake of deadly 1993 accident

Copyright 1996 Houston Chronicle

Everything changed after Willie Odom hit the railroad bridge.

Until that morning three years ago, the 32,000 masters, pilots, tankermen and deckhands who make up the nation'sbarge and towboat industry labored in obscurity, save for the occasional oil spill or drowning.

"The industry as a whole was invisible," said Capt. John Sutton, a towboat pilot in Hahnville, La., and president of the American Inland Mariners Association.

Then Odom got lost in the south Alabama fog, a mistake that is still having repercussions for inland mariners. A willful and self-reliant lot, these men and women are being drawn into the highly regulated milieu of their deep-sea counterparts, and many of them don't like it.

Odom was working the midnight-to-6 a.m. shift at the helm of the towboat Mauvilla, pushing six barges (two rows of three) of coal, cement and wood chips from Mobile to Birmingham and Tuscaloosa. It was Sept. 22, 1993, about 2:45 a.m.

A pilot who had held his license for three years, Odom thought he was on the Mobile River but, in fact, had steered the flotilla into Big Bayou Canot, a shallow waterway not suitable for commercial navigation. The three lead barges glanced off an unlit CSX Railway bridge that had been built over the bayou in 1909, displacing a girder.

Eightminutes later, Amtrak's eastbound Sunset Limited roared across the bridge at 72 mph and derailed. All three locomotives and the first four passenger cars catapulted into the water, killing 47 of the 220 people aboard and injuring scores of others.

"I heard this noise -- whoosh! --and I seen this fire," Odom later told investigators. "I thought, `Oh, my Lord, I made the wrong turn.' "

Odom surrendered his license in March 1994 and no longer works for the Mauvilla's owner, Warrior & Gulf Navigation Co. of Chickasaw, Ala.He could not be located for comment.

The aftershocks of Odom's errant left turn, however, are still being felt. Towboat operators are being sent to radar classes and face the worrisome prospect of having their licenses restricted and their skills evaluated during U.S. Coast Guard ride-alongs. These developments are especially galling to the older masters and pilots, who rely more on intuition than formal training.

"You got to have knowledge of this boat -- how it feels," said Glenn Phelps of Franklin, La., 53-year-old captain of the towboat Francis M. Devall. "You could read a book all day about how to operate it and it wouldn't do you no good."

After 32 years in the industry, Phelps has trouble understanding why his ability would be called into question. Certainly, he has been tested: "One boat done sunk on me, one burned up on me and I got run over one time," he said. "I never been hurt."

Phelps hates the thought of going to radar school -- and paying for it. "A lot of the old guys are retiring,"he said. "They don't want to renew their licenses because there's so much hassle."

Why doesn't he quit?

"This is all I've ever done," Phelps said. Nor is he likely to find a land job that pays $195 a day.

The seeds of the Coast Guard initiatives so disturbing to Phelps and his colleagues were planted within days of the Amtrak accident, when Transportation Secretary Federico Pe&#241;a ordered the Coast Guard and the Federal Railroad Administration to conduct safety reviews. Odom and other operators of towboats, which are not routinely inspected by the Coast Guard, quickly became the focal point.

The National Transportation Safety Board ultimately blamed the accident on Odom's inexperience with radar, Warrior & Gulf Navigation's failure to give Odom proper radar training and the Coast Guard's failure to establish stricter licensing standards.

Whether radar training would have kept Odom from hitting the bridge is debatable. One of his marine instructors in Mobile during the late 1980s, Ron Wahl, doubts that it would have made much difference, given the bayou's geography.

"Marsh and mud make very poor reflectors," said Wahl, now training director for The Sea School in St. Petersburg, Fla. "We looked at that same cut where he made a wrong turn and you could not see it clearly on radar."

Nonetheless, the Amtrak disaster amounted to "the `Aha!' moment for the industry," said Ken Wells, a New Orleans-based vice president with the American Waterways Operators Association, an owners' group.

It was followed by a series of environmental calamities. In January 1994, an oceangoing barge, the Morris J. Berman, lost 750,000 gallons of oil off Puerto Rico. In January of this year, the North Cape lost 828,000 gallons off Rhode Island.

Galveston Bay subsequently was fouled by spills -- 210,000 gallons in March, 42,000 gallons in May --from barges owned by Houston's Buffalo Marine. In both cases the barges ruptured for no obvious reason.

The Buffalo Marine incidents and others along the Texas coast moved Texas Land Commissioner Garry Mauro to create a government-industry task force on barge safety. It had its first meeting last July in Houston, and Mauro promises that "we have moved this up to a front-burner issue.

"When you look at all the oil coming into Texas on barges -- if we continue to ignore these problems, we're going to have a catastrophic accident," said Mauro, whose office is responsible for oil-spill prevention and response in state waters.

For an industry accustomed to a low profile, the events of the past three years have been unsettling. "We are very anxious for the limelight to go away," said Sutton, of the American Inland Mariners, and it's easy to see why.

Plan for improvements

In December 1993, the Coast Guard reported that most barge accidents were attributable to human error rather than equipment failure. It made 19 recommendations, calling for improvements in areas such as radar training, bridge inspection and operator licensing.

Most have gone into effect, the notable exception being a proposal to drastically alter the licensing scheme.Generalists would, in effect, be forced to specialize.

"That scares a lot of guys," said Tommy Tooker, training manager for Houston-based Coastal Towing Inc.

On a recent weekday morning, the Francis M. Devall and its tow, a 297-foot tank barge of anhydrous ammonia, were tied up in the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway near Port Arthur, about to depart for the DuPont chemical plant down the coast in Victoria.

A Coast Guard lieutenant and petty officer who had boarded the towboat to do a safety check encountered no resistance from Capt. Phelps but endured a profane, 15-minute tirade from the vessel's 61-year-old pilot, Nolan Corvill, who was fuming about all the new regulations.

"It's a shame, man, what we're having to go through," said Corvill, who lives in Port Arthur and has been working on the water since he was 14.

"We got to lay out all this money (for training) and what are we getting out of it? Not a damn thing. All these sons of bitches sitting up there making all these rules -- I'd like to let them drive this son of a bitch through all this mess."

The "mess" is the snarl of recreational craft Corvill must dodge on parts of the Intracoastal during nice weather. The Coast Guard can take his license if he collides with one of these vessels and is found to be at fault, Corvill complained, but "they can't do nothing about some drunken son of a bitch on a yacht."

Lt. Scott Bates listened politely to the diatribe. He could, to some extent, understand it. Last April 20, a small fishing boat called the Audrey cut in front of a string of barges loaded with rock on the Sabine-Neches Canal. The Audrey was struck portside and capsized; two of the four people aboard, including the captain, were trapped inside and drowned.

The accident appears to have been the fault of the Audrey's captain, said Bates, who was in on the investigation. But recreational boaters are not required to have licenses and are regulated by the state, not the federal government.

"These (towboat operators) are the only ones we've got under our thumbs," Bates said. So they are, of necessity, the focus of Coast Guard efforts to improve safety on inland waters.

"Most of them don't want to accept as much responsibility as the Coast Guard's trying to give them,"said Petty Officer Robert Cook.

At times the towboat industry has been its own worst enemy. Two years ago, for example, an internal Coast Guard memorandum exposed a flaw in the way the industry's worker-fatality rate had been calculated.

For years, the American Waterways Operators had been telling the Coast Guard that the work force numbered 100,000. The annual death rate, in that case, would have been about three times the national average for all industries but still lower than that of commercial fishing, long held out as the riskiest maritime trade.

Death rate 8 times average

Some digging by the Coast Guard, however, suggested that there were probably no more than 32,000 people in the towboat industry and that the actual death rate was perhaps eight times the national average.

"These statistics were worse than those in the fishing industry that the Coast Guard had thought were totally unacceptable," said Richard Block, who edits a newsletter for the National Association of Maritime Educators in Houma, La.

The American Waterways Operators, according to the Coast Guard memo, dated May 12, 1994, finally acknowledged that it had made a "considerable overestimation" of the work force and that there was a "serious fatality rate for the industry."

More regulation won't necessarily improve this record. Towboat companies, as a rule, have trouble finding and keeping competent people to do the dangerous, lonely work of a deckhand or tankerman.

The initial attraction -- $65 to $75 a day, with free room and board, for a starting deckhand -- tends to lose its appeal after a few months on the river. The money is overshadowed by a work schedule -- typically, 30 days on and 15 off -- that plays havoc with family life.

"The people who normally stay in it are from somewhat depressed areas where there's not an availability of good jobs," Tooker said. "In Trinity, Texas, it's the best thing they've got. Or lower Alabama."

Lacking in education

Said Coast Guard Cmdr. Mike Farley in Port Arthur: "A lot of the people who are acting as deckhands on these barges are not all that well-educated. In fact, some of the tankermen can't even read; a lot of the licensing is done through oral testing."

This is not to say that all or even most of the industry's darkest moments can be blamed on raw, illiterate mariners. A report on fatal towboat accidents issued jointly by the Coast Guard and the American Waterways Operators last July denounces companies that neglect safety to boost profits.

Examining 136 worker deaths from 1985-1994, the researchers found that 103 of the victims, or 76 percent, were deckhands. Many of these were young and new to the job, and the leading cause of death, by far, was a fall overboard.

"Perhaps," the report's authors concluded, "there is a `cultural' message being sent that safety is not a company's first priority."

The report also raises doubts about the industry's ability to learn from its mistakes. It makes reference to a 1969 study by the NTSB, which found that most towboat crew members who had died between 1965 and 1968 had fallen overboard.

Little has changed, it seems, in 30 years. Until the Sunset Limited went into Big Bayou Canot, however, few outside the industry had reason to care about its trial-by-fire training methods or its propensity for losing deckhands. For the public, the train wreck provided a jarring introduction to the world of the inland mariner.

It's a world of two, six-hour shifts a day for 30 days at a stretch, of freezing mornings on the Ohio River and torrid afternoons on the Intracoastal. Extended periods of boredom are broken by bursts of grueling, potentially life-threatening labor.

Deckhands must be alert to lines that can snap and recoil with enough force to sever a limb, tankermen to vapors that can asphyxiate in the short term and cause cancer in the long term. Pilots and masters must keep their barges from bumping into bridges or other vessels.

Leroy Melancon, 26, of Starks, La., serves as both tankerman and deckhand on the Francis M. Devall. He is paid $115 a day to keep the boat clean, check gauges on the tank barge, load and unload cargo and perform other tasks that fall outside the purview of the master and pilot. He works 14 days straight, then has seven days off.

When the barge contains anhydrous ammonia, Melancon must make sure that the temperature and pressure don't get too high and the liquid doesn't vaporize. Ammonia vapors, he said matter-of-factly, "suck the oxygen right out of the air."

Still, Melancon finds his job easy. "Ninety percent of the time, I'm sitting on my butt for $115 a day."

After the Amtrak accident, Congress asked the Coast Guard to consider an inspection program for towboats. The idea seemed reasonable: In a study, the Coast Guard pointed out that it had no way to assess the condition of the nation's 5,200-vessel towboat fleet because the owners and operators were under no obligation to report deficiencies or repairs.

After reviewing 12,000 towboat accidents reported between 1982 and 1991, however, the Coast Guard determined that only 18 percent were caused by equipment or structural failure. It attributed 62 percent to human error and concluded that an industrywide inspection program would have little impact.

And so the agency's attention turned to the mariners themselves. It was decided that they should have formal radar training and use updated charts and compasses. A notoriously loose accident-reporting system was tightened. A bridge-inspection program was put in place as a means of identifying navigational hazards of the sort posed by the old span over Big Bayou Canot.

Toughest issue: licensing

That leaves licensing, perhaps the thorniest issue of all. Although no final decisions have been made, the Coast Guard seems inclined to replace the one-size-fits-all license currently required of the 13,000 or so towboat operators with a three-tiered arrangement: apprentice, mate-pilot and, finally, master.

Pilots and masters would, in turn, be classified by experience. Some would receive "unlimited" licenses, enabling them to operate any vessel, while others would be restricted to vessels of 3,000 horsepower or less.
Licenses would be further narrowed by route.And a master would bear full responsibility for his vessel in the event of an accident, even if someone else were at the helm.

It is this last point, mainly, that bothers Sutton and members of his fledgling mariners' group. They envision a scenario in which a master is asleep (as was Capt. Andrew Stabler of the Mauvilla) and a pilot makes a grievous error (as did Odom).

"We want it to remain as it is --that each individual is responsible for his or her own actions," Sutton said.

Although the Coast Guard is no longer accepting public comments on its licensing proposal, the project manager at agency headquarters, Lt. Cmdr. Don Darcy, said that nothing is set in stone. "We want the active mariner to be part of the regulatory process," Darcy said.

Wells, of the American Waterways Operators, said the lessons of the Amtrak accident have not gone unheeded.

"You look at the accident and there were a hundred little things that went wrong," he said. "Most companies look at these and say, `That couldn't apply to me.' But as an industry, it was hard to stand here and say, `This will never happen again.' "

Industry's `change of culture'

Wells believes the industry is undergoing "a change of culture." Keith Palmer, director of Texas A&M University's Center for Marine Training and Safety in Galveston, also senses movement.

Palmer has watched several thousand deckhands and tankermen come in for training many didn't think they needed. After receiving hands-on instruction in firefighting and vapor recovery that could save their lives, most of the skeptics are contrite.
As one student put it on his comment sheet: "This course made me open my eyes and got me to thinken' (sic) again."

It took Odom two years and several tries to pass his Coast Guard licensing examination. "He . . . didn't have a lot of education," said Wahl, his former teacher, but Odom was highly motivated.

Willie Long, director of The Sea School in Mobile and another of Odom's teachers, encountered him about a year ago and saw that he had been demoralized by the Amtrak accident.

"He was almost in a coma," Long said. "He had worked for a long time to get his license. This thing could have happened to just about anybody, in reality. Maybe something good is coming out of it."

"Those who desire to give up Freedom in order to gain security, will not have, nor do they deserve, either one." - Benjamin Franklin
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Offshore Risks

This is the final part, of this eleven part miniseries. Towards the merchant and foreign mariners.

Safety concerns rise with return of oil, gas boom

Copyright 1996 Houston Chronicle
These are exhilarating times for the offshore oil and gas industry.

It is once again possible to make money in this dicey business, as evidenced by record lease sales of 1,541 tracts in the central and western Gulf of Mexico last August and September. Oil production is expected to nearly double in the next four years.

The exploration, drilling and production delirium that began two years ago, however, has a downside: The number of accidents is up sharply.

In 1992, there were 54 fires, explosions, blowouts and other mishaps in the Gulf reported to the U.S. Department of the Interior's Minerals Management Service (MMS), which oversees activities on the Outer Continental Shelf.

Last year, 98 accidents were reported to the MMS, an increase of 81 percent over 1992 and 58 percent over 1994. Figures for 1996 are not yet available, but a significant improvement seems unlikely.

"There's a cowboy mentality out there: `Don't think about it, do it,' "said Mike Farley, a commander with the U.S. Coast Guard in Port Arthur.

This is not to say that all companies have forsaken safe practices. Many are meticulous about protecting their employees and equipment, say officials with the Coast Guard and the MMS.

The sheer volume of activity in the Gulf, however, is problematic. People are being rushed offshore without the proper training. Production is paramount. Harried regulators can't keep up.

At least 14 workers have been killed and 18 seriously injured in the Gulf since 1994, says the MMS, which has the most complete data.

Add transportation and the picture darkens considerably. In the past three years, according to the Coast Guard, 15 workers have died and 103 have been hurt on offshore supply vessels, which are frequently overused and undermanned.

Two helicopter crashes in the northwestern Gulf have killed five offshore workers and two pilots in the past six months alone; data for the entire Gulf were not available.

Although each accident has its own genealogy,a Chronicle study of the offshore industry points to three phenomena that may be contributing to the elevated casualty figures.

&#183; Competition has led to irresponsible cost-cutting, especially by smaller companies.

"We've had a great number of small operators who are taking over properties because they're not economical for the majors any more,"said Chuck Schoennagle, chief accident investigator at the MMS regional office in New Orleans.

"A lot of fields that normally would have been abandoned are continuing to be produced by these small operators, and that's increasing our workload."

Basic concerns

In their zeal for profits, some companies have allowed fixed production platforms and mobile drilling units to deteriorate to the extent that even basic safety equipment is unreliable.

On two occasions this year, platform railings gave way as Lt. Julio Martinez, chief offshore inspector for the Coast Guard in Port Arthur, leaned against them.

Martinez hadn't experienced such scares during quieter times in the Gulf and feels lucky not to be included in the MMS casualty data. "You're looking at 80 feet above the water line on these things," he said.

"Safety is a low priority for some companies," Martinez said. "Drill pipe, drill bits -- anything that has to do with production you're going to get right away."

Not so with fire extinguishers or life jackets. Some field supervisors actually welcome a Coast Guard "fix-it" ticket, Martinez said, because it's the only thing that elicits a response from the front office.

The MMS can move against those who bend the rules; since 1990 it has proposed $1.53 million in safety-related civil penalties against operators in the Gulf.

After case dismissals and penalty reductions, however, it has collected only about a third of that amount.

&#183; The federal government's inspection program is stretched to the limit and relies heavily on industry self-policing.

Under a 1989 memorandum of understanding, both the MMS and the Coast Guard have offshore inspection responsibilities. The MMS, in general, looks at the condition of production equipment -- wellheads, flowlines -- while the Coast Guard concentrates on such things as life rafts and fire hoses.

Neither agency, however, has enough inspectors to keep up with the surging activity in the Gulf. The MMS has 49 inspectors for more than 3,800 platforms and 140 mobile drilling units, the Coast Guard 21 --some of whom work offshore only part time.

Sampling for safety

The MMS has resorted to a "sampling" program to determine which platforms require full inspections. Only those that fail to meet a certain number of safety criteria on a computer-generated list get a thorough going-over.

The Coast Guard'sbusiest inspection zone -- a north-south strip of the central Gulf administered out of Morgan City, La. -- has about 1,700 platforms and 80 mobile units. The 22,000-square-mile zone is covered by three inspectors.

"Our workload is heavy," said Lt. Jim Elliott, the chief inspector. "We spend about 30 hours a month just in the air. People are drilling deeper and deeper, and that's increasing the time we have to spend flying."

For Elliott and the others, already long days just got longer. In October, the Coast Guard announced that it would place more emphasis on crew competency and less on hardware.

As a result, inspectors must supervise time-consuming evacuation and firefighting drills on every platform and rig.

The three Morgan City men are averaging 35 inspections per month, a feverish pace attributable both to the Gulf boom and to a leaner Coast Guard.

"Because of political pressures, we're downsizing," said James Magill, an offshore activities specialist at Coast Guard headquarters in Washington. Congress, however, hasn't downsized the agency's mission.

An audit report issued Aug. 28 by the U.S. Department of Transportation's Office of Inspector General says that the Coast Guard "did not perform initial inspections of 84 percent of new offshore facilities and did not adequately monitor the self-inspection program.

"This occurred because facility owners ignored regulations and the Coast Guard did not prioritize its limited inspection resources adequately ... ," the report says. "Consequently, adverse safety conditions went undetected and uncorrected."

The Coast Guard concurred with the inspector general's findings, saying it intended to improve internal communication about new platforms and start a tracking system for self-inspection reports.

Lt. Martinez in Port Arthur can attest to the limitations of self-inspection. "Some operators," he said, "don't know what the Coast Guard is looking for or even how to examine the equipment."

About a third of the 1,000 platforms in the Port Arthur zone were not inspected by their operators last year, Martinez said.

&#183; There is a scarcity of experienced workers, and contractors in many cases are being hired to perform the most dangerous jobs.

The oil price crash in the mid-1980s drove many seasoned people out of the industry. Now that things are rolling again, companies are desperate for good help.

Lack of experience

"There's a shortage of hands,"said Jimmy Craft, rig manager on Falcon Drilling Co.'s FALRIG 86, a mobile "jack-up" drilling unit positioned in the Gulf about 45 miles south of Grand Isle, La. Craft told the Chronicle during a tour of the rig in October that at least half of the 34 men on board had less than six months' experience.

"They're not used to the environment," said Mike Mayfield, FALRIG 86's veteran barge engineer. "A lot of them, they just don't know how dangerous it is out here."

Mike Swafford, a recently arrived roustabout from Houston lured offshore by a monthly wage of $1,750, seemed unruffled by the isolation and all the heavy equipment. "You just got to watch where you're going," he said.

Swafford's well-being, however, depends to a great extent on the vigilance of others. A serious accident that happened in the Gulf not far from FALRIG 86's drilling site underscores this point.

On the evening of March 19, 1989, at an Arco facility known as South Pass Block 60, Platform B, a contract worker cut into an 18-inch gas pipeline without first ensuring that it was clear.

Gas and liquid hydrocarbons that had collected in the line were released, and a spark from nearby machinery caused a huge explosion and fire. Seven workers died after jumping or being blown into the water, and the platform was destroyed.

Bob Bea, a professor of civil engineering and naval architecture at the University of California-Berkeley, has analyzed this accident and many others traced to human error. It is, he said, "an excellent example of how inexperience and a lack of training can be the direct, root cause" of a tragedy.

"South Pass Block 60 was the first accident linked by the MMS to human factors," Bea said. "Arco, because of downsizing and outsourcing, was contracting out, going low-bid, and the contractors were scrambling to get trained people out there."

Indeed, in its final report on the accident the MMS listed as one of the contributing causes Arco's "absence of oversight over contractor activities."

Worst offshore disaster

Only eight months before South Pass Block 60 blew, the Piper Alpha, a platform in the North Sea, was lost in what remains the world's worst offshore disaster. The Piper Alpha exploded after a crew tried to start a pump that had been partly dismantled for repairs during the previous shift; 167 workers were killed.

A 1991 MMS study of the Piper Alpha and South Pass Block 60 accidents found that "a contributing factor to both ... was the absence of communication regarding the status of platform activities and the safety systems."

Bud Danenberger, chief of the MMS's Engineering and Technology Division in Herndon, Va., and one of the study's authors, put it more succinctly in an interview.

"The human factors things are the killers," he said.
Accidents the magnitude of Piper Alpha or even South Pass Block 60 are rare. Many of the workplace deaths in the offshore industry --like that of Chad Hebert last April 30 -- come one at a time, but they are no less tragic or instructive.

Hebert, an employee of United Production Contractor Services, and another man were replacing a grating on a Flow Petroleum platform in the northwestern Gulf, about 65 miles south of Port Arthur, when a plastic gas line below them was ignited by slag from a cutting torch. A fire broke out, and during the ensuing panic Hebert fell through a hole he had just cut. He struck a railing on a deck 40 feet below and landed in the water.

Although Hebert was rescued and given CPR for two hours, he died on the platform. An autopsy revealed that his spine had been severed in two places, his spleen and right lung had been torn and several of his bones had been broken.

One man's experience

Kirk Kelley didn't die when Platform A of Mustang Island Block 831 blew up two years ago off Corpus Christi. But there were moments afterward when he wished he had.

Kelley, 34, was the foreman on the platform, operated by Seagull Energy Corp. of Houston. He and the two other men assigned to it, Wesley Ardoin and Greg Weber, worked for a Cypress contractor called Baker Maintenance and Operation Services, better known as Baker/MO.

The business was not new to Kelley; he had started going offshore in 1984 and had come to enjoy it. "It was something different every day," he said from his home in Lufkin. "It was outside, and I liked being outside."

Kelley, Ardoin and Weber arrived on Mustang Island Block 831 in September 1994. "It needed a lot of work," Kelley said. "It was an old platform. We had several valves that were frozen on several pieces of equipment. The MMS safety inspections were clearly not up to date.
"But I'd seen those things before. I wasn't terribly frightened. I knew we could fix it if Seagull would let us."

After the men had been on the platform for about a month, gas alarms in the crew quarters began sounding with irksome regularity.

"We couldn't find the leak," Kelley said. "I took a gas sniffer and went outside and tried to find out where (gas) was getting into the building. I couldn't find a real heavy reading, other than by the two outside doors. I told Seagull about it, but they weren't real concerned."

Kelley reiterated his anxiety about a gas leak during a Nov. 3 visit by Seagull officials Bruce Wallace (who has since left the company) and Gary Schwintz. The Seagull men said that the matter would be investigated when a Louisiana gas-detection firm, Total Engineering Services Team (TEST), came out for a scheduled inspection Nov. 21.

Seagull seemed unwilling to shut down the platform for any repairs --even small ones -- until that time, Kelley said. "They didn't want to lose production."

Frustrated, he went around Seagull and made direct contact with TEST on Nov. 18; he was reminded that the planned inspection was only three days away and told that nothing could be done before then.

The TEST inspection never took place. At about 5:50 p.m. on Nov. 20, Kelley, Ardoin and Weber were preparing to eat dinner when the alarm went off yet again. Kelley, who was on the phone, shouted to the others to close down the gas well.

"As soon as I got that out it blew,"Kelley said. "I saw the fireball hit me. I knew it blew me back, but I didn't know how far. I knew I was on fire. I knew I didn't have any hair. I thought my ears were gone. It hurt, and then it didn't hurt."

Kelley, as it turned out, had been burned over 59 percent of his body; his back, legs, hands and feet took the worst of it. Ardoin and Weber had burns over 35 and 63 percent of their bodies, respectively.

The three men -- barefoot, their clothing shredded -- spent 15 hours on the crumpled platform before the Coast Guard rescued them. Ardoin's eyes were swollen shut and Weber was in shock. Kelley served as their nurse and counselor during the ordeal, which was only beginning.

Each went through weeks of excruciating burn therapy in the hospital. They especially dreaded the twice-daily debridement sessions in the whirlpool, during which dead tissue was scraped away with wire brushes and scalpel-like instruments.

"I was on a Demerol push, an IV, every 10 minutes," Kelley said. "Plus, they'd come in and give me a Demerol shot before I went into the whirlpool. But it doesn't matter how much medicine they give you; it's not going to relieve the pain."

He endured the skin-scrapings for 31 consecutive days and has undergone surgery five times. His grafted skin -- which has only one layer of tissue instead of the normal three --is sensitive to sunlight and tears easily. His joints are stiff every morning. He has nightmares. He's depressed.

$10.5 million settlement

Kelley, Ardoin and Weber sued Seagull, accusing it of failing to fix the gas leak, and TEST, accusing it of failing to properly maintain the gas alarms. The case settled for $10.5 million -- $3.5 million per plaintiff, before attorney's fees -- on Nov. 29, 1995.

The money is small consolation for the physical and emotional scars inflicted by a flash fire that, by all appearances, could have been prevented.

Without faulting any one party, an MMS report on the accident released in October concludes that if "the platform had been shut in until the source of gas (was) found, the explosion and fire might not have occurred."

Kelley's attorney in Lufkin, Les Chambers, places the blame squarely on Seagull.

"They rolled the dice in this case and lost," Chambers said. The gas well beneath Mustang Island Block 831 was nearly depleted, he said, and "I guess (Seagull's) hope was that the well would dry up before something bad happened."

Ardoin's Houston-based attorney, John Millard, said that Seagull "wanted to keep pumping every nickel out of the ground" and simply "put a Band-Aid" on any problem that developed.

Alan Payne, Seagull's vice president of investor relations, disputes this characterization.

"We've been very active operating around the world for a long time and have always been very conscious of safety," Payne said. A major operator in the Gulf, Seagull conducted a companywide safety assessment after the Mustang Island Block 831 accident and saw no need for significant policy changes, he said.

Seagull's attorney in Houston, Jill Schaar, said she has defended the firm in all its personal injury cases since 1990, and "there just aren't that many. This is certainly the most serious one they've had."

Schaar said the settlement with Kelley, Ardoin and Weber "was completely without admission of any liability or wrongdoing by, or on behalf of, Seagull. The primary (safety) responsibility, of course, must rest with the men who are working on the platform."

Kelley, however, said that Seagull made all the decisions when it came to repairs.

Although he now runs a small construction company, Kelley stays abreast of the offshore industry. He is troubled by recent developments.

"It's not so much your majors, it's your independents that are the problem," Kelley said. "They're concentrating on how much is coming out of the ground and how much money is going in their pockets."

What advice would he give to an offshore novice?
"You're sitting on a time bomb,"Kelley said. "You don't know when it's going to go off. You've got to pay attention to everything you're doing. You've got to respect that gas and respect that oil, because it's raw and it'll go up at any time."

(This concludes the eleven part miniseries. About the domestic & foreign Merchant Marines, and other related hazardous careers at sea.)


"Those who desire to give up Freedom in order to gain security, will not have, nor do they deserve, either one." - Benjamin Franklin
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