Bouchard Barge No. 255 Hearing Part 2: ‘He Slipped Out of His Life Jacket and Sank to the Bottom’

A Corpus Christi Fire Department vessel attempts to extinguish a fire onboard a barge approximately three miles from the Port Aransas, Texas, jetties Oct. 20, 2017. A Coast Guard Corpus Christi MH-65 Dolphin and HC-144 Ocean Sentry are searching for two missing crewmembers. U.S. Coast Guard photo.

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) – An engineer on the Buster Bouchard tugboat broke down in tears as he described the search for two deckhands blown off a loaded oil barge which exploded in 2017 off the coast of Texas.

Timothy Lerette was one of two seamen who jumped into a pilot boat to try to find Du’jour Vanterpool, 26, of Houston, and Zachariah Jackson, 28, of Salt Lake City, who worked on the barge.

Lerette said they spotted a life jacket bobbing in the water off Port Aransas. As the body rolled over, Lerette said, he recognized Vanterpool.

“We knew right away it was Du’jour. We tried to retrieve him but he slipped out of his life jacket and sank to the bottom,” Lerette said.

Lerette testified July 17 at the U.S. Coast Guard’s hearing in Houston into the cause of the fatal explosion. The Coast Guard, along with the National Transportation Safety Board, are trying to determine the cause of the accident to try to prevent a recurrence.

Vanterpool’s body was later recovered, but Jackson’s remains were never found.

Lerette said he retrieved what he could from extensive debris in the water. He found Jackson’s white laced shoes and Vanterpool’s boots.

“The whole tops of them (Jackson’s shoes) were all stringy and black and charred and burned. And the boots that were found, I grabbed and brought them on board and got blood all over my hands,” Lerette said.

According to the Coast Guard fact sheet, 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 barge had arrived from Louisiana and was about to be towed by the tugboat to a refinery in Corpus Christi. Lerette said he was in the tugboat’s engine room warming up the engines in preparation for departure when he felt vibrations from the force of the explosion.

Both vessels were owned by Bouchard Transportation Co. of Melville, New York.

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.

Like first mate Lonnie Roberts, who testified July 16 on the opening day of the Coast Guard hearing, Lerette described a company culture at Bouchard in which seamen feared for their jobs if they reported problems to management.

Under questioning by Coast Guard chief warrant officer Lanette Jeanes of the agency’s Corpus Christi sector, Lerette described an exchange between Jackson and Kevin Donohue, Bouchard vice president for safety and vetting, which illustrated the dynamic.

CWO Jeanes: Prior to the explosion, did Mr. Jackson or Mr. Vanterpool express any concerns to you about problems with the barge?

Lerette: Yes, Ma’am.

CWO Jeanes: Can you tell me what those problems were?

Lerette: I don’t know the specifics on all the problems. I know I had a conversation with Zach Jackson and he told me he reported issues because we had an audit coming up and he was a new barge captain. And he reported those issues to Bouchard and he got a call from Kevin Donohue saying that it was a mistake to do that.

CWO Jeanes: What was a mistake?

Lerette: To report those issues.

CWO Jeanes: Can you explain that just a little bit more? I want to make sure I’m understanding what you’re saying.

Lerette: He was trying to imply he was going to be fired because he reported those issues.

Although he didn’t know details of the problems Jackson had reported, Lerette said he recalled one issue concerned some holes in steel, but otherwise didn’t know details of Jackson’s concerns.

Donohue is scheduled to testify July 19.

After the explosion, Lerette was required to remain on the Buster Bouchard tugboat for another two days to maintain staffing levels while other crew members changed shifts.

“I just kept standing watches. I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t really function,” Lerette testified.

Among those who came on board in the change of shifts was Amos Franks, one of the barge captains. Asked whether there was conversation by the crew about possible causes of the explosion, Lerette described a conversation with Franks.

Lerette said Zach had discussed with Franks how to vent the area in the bow of the barge where the explosion subsequently occurred.

“He (Franks) told me that Zach had called him the night previously asking him how to properly vent that space if he needed to. And Amos made it clear to me that Zach clearly didn’t understand what he tried to tell him,” Lerette said.

Franks, who also is expected to testify, didn’t get into further detail about the issue he discussed with Jackson. Asked whether he had ever heard conversation about a problem with sparks on the barge, Lerette said he had heard about electrical problems including corroded wiring in the electrical boxes.

Lerette said he himself sometimes felt unsafe on the Buster Bouchard because of various problems such as engine overheating, sparks flying out of the stack, especially while an attached barge was loaded with crude oil, and an episode right before departing Louisiana enroute to Port Aransas, Texas, when a crank case alarm sounded due to over-pressurization.

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

(You are here) Part 2: ‘He Slipped Out of His Life Jacket and Sank to the Bottom’

Part 3: Conflicting Testimony and Disputed Phone Calls

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’