Bouchard Barge No. 255 Hearing Part 4: Former Bouchard VP ‘Shocked’ at Condition of Barge 255

The Coast Guard, Texas General Land Office and Bouchard Transportation representatives continue to respond to a barge that caught fire Friday morning three miles off the jetties of Port Aransas, Texas on Oct. 21, 2017. U.S. Coast Guard photo by courtesy asset.

Editor’s Note: This article is part of a series focussing on the U.S. Coast Guard’s public hearing on the explosion and fire aboard the Bouchard No. 255 tank barge that claimed the lives of two people off the coast of Port Aransas, Texas on October 20, 2017. 

By Barbara Liston (Clearview Post) – A former vice president of Bouchard Transportation testified he was “shocked” at the poor condition of a company oil barge that exploded in 2017, killing the two deckhands on board.

Shawn Garry was one of the current and former company officials called to testify at a formal a U.S. Coast Guard hearing in Houston into the cause of the disaster off the coast of Texas.

Asked what factors might have contributed to the explosion, Garry described what he saw when he and Coast Guard investigators boarded the barge after the fire was extinguished.

“Based on the condition of what we saw while we were on board – a lot of you were on board – there was some deterioration going on. There was definitely some deterioration going on on the tank top and the deck area, whether or not that was the cause of it or not. I was kind of surprised, to be honest with you, the first time I stepped on the barge following the incident. The material condition of the barge was kind of shocking,” Garry said.

He further described the barge conditions as “extreme wastage, conduit wastage, thin metal, tank top pits, very thin bulkheads, that sort of thing.”

The 448-foot-long barge, known as Bouchard Barge No. 255, was loaded with 140,000 barrels of crude oil. At the time of the explosion, the anchor was being raised so the attached Buster Bouchard tugboat could take the barge to a refinery in Corpus Christi.

Zachariah Jackson, 28, of Salt Lake City, and Du’jour Vanterpool, 26, of Houston, the only seamen on board the barge, were blown off the vessel and died. Vanterpool’s body was recovered days later but Jackson’s remains were never found.

Jackson’s parents have sued Bouchard for more than $1 million, alleging that the vessels were “improperly maintained, dangerous, unseaworthy, and otherwise unfit for the purpose they were being used,” according to the complaint filed by Kurt Arnold of Arnold & Itkin in Houston.

Lonnie Roberts, first mate on the tugboat, testified July 16 on the opening day of the Coast Guard hearing that the company culture was such that seamen feared for their jobs if they reported problems with the vessels to management.

Timothy Lerette, a tugboat assistant engineer, testified on July 17 that Jackson said he reported problems with the barge to company vice president Kevin Donohue. According to Lerette, Jackson said Donohue replied that it was a “mistake” to report problems, implying Jackson’s job was in jeopardy.

Donohue is expected to testify before the two-week hearing concludes.

In his testimony July 19, Garry, the former vice president for regulatory compliance, said he had never been on the B255 barge or heard about any safety concerns before the explosion.

A lawyer for Bouchard suggested in his questioning of Garry that the poor barge conditions which Garry observed could have been a result of the accident itself.

“It’s fair to say that the explosion itself could have caused much of the damage you were concerned about after the explosion,” the lawyer said to Garry.

“No, that’s not what I’m referring to,” Garry responded

“It’s fair to say some of the firefighting could have damaged the barge,” the lawyer said.

“Yeah, but corrosion’s not going to happen that fast from firefighting. I’m talking more about wastage,” Garry said.

“Are you aware some of the firefighting was done with sea water?”

“Yes, sir. And that can cause corrosion. It will cause corrosion, but not in a week,” Garry said.

The company lawyer also had Garry read from a Coast Guard inspection of the barge five months before the explosion which concluded that the 38-year-old vessel was satisfactory in all categories evaluated and cited no deficiencies.

Garry, who was a Coast Guard inspector and investigator before he went to work for Bouchard, said the barge also had been in dry dock not long before the explosion.

“So how did all of this go unseen?” Garry said rhetorically.

Bouchard calls itself “the nation’s largest independently-owned ocean-going petroleum barge company.” On its website, the company states that its fleet consists of 26 barges and 25 tugs.

The company’s LinkedIn page describes it as a family-owned concern of five generations of the Bouchard family.

Garry testified that the company was in compliance with its safety management system.

He described the work atmosphere at Bouchard, particularly at its Melville, New York, headquarters as stressful and intense, always feeling like it was in crisis mode. When he visited company vessels, Garry said he saw the culture of stress had trickled down to shipboard employees.

“I could tell by the reaction when I came on board they were intimidated,” Garry said.

Both Garry and Michael Greer, the company’s former port engineer, testified about their frustration in getting vessels repaired easily.

“It was a point of aggravation to me to get needed parts, get needed supplies on board the vessel, on all vessels,” Greer testified July 19.

“They would take steps to resolve issues,” Garry said of urgent repair needs. “There are some road bumps along the way. There are some hurdles along the way.”

Garry said the bumps included high employee turnover and personnel shortages.

Garry said he left Bouchard in part because he was “disheartened” by the level of support he received managing the aftermath of the explosion.

Garry said he received a middle-of-the-night haranguing phone call from one of the Bouchard owners for authorizing two firefighters to sleep on the tugboat and eat a meal there. Garry said the firefighters had been standing watch for a potential re-ignition of the barge and when their shift was over, the sea was too rough for them to return safely to shore.

“This isn’t your boat. This isn’t your tugboat. Who authorized this?” Bouchard said, according to Garry.

“Did you feel that was an intimidating atmosphere that you worked under?” asked Bruce Davies, Coast Guard chief of investigations in Houston.

“Yes sir, I do.”

Editor’s Note: This article is part of a series focussing on the U.S. Coast Guard’s public hearing on the explosion and fire aboard the Bouchard No. 255 tank barge that claimed the lives of two people off the coast of Port Aransas, Texas on October 20, 2017. The full series of articles on the hearing can be found here or at the links below:

Links to more articles in the series:

Part 1: ‘I Was Hearing Blasts Every Second

Part 2: ‘He Slipped Out of His Life Jacket and Sank to the Bottom’

Part 3: Conflicting Testimony and Disputed Phone Calls

(You are here) Part 4: Former Bouchard VP ‘Shocked’ at Condition of Barge 255

Part 5: ‘No one could say they didn’t know about the problems’

Part 6: Final Day –  ‘Sitting On a Big Powder Keg’