Houston Ship Pilots Receive IMO Bravery at Sea Award, Global Shipping’s Highest Honor for Bravery

imo bravery at sea award 2017
The ceremony to present the 2017 IMO Award for Exceptional Bravery at Sea on Monday, November 27, 2017, at IMO Headquarters.

Two Houston Ship Pilots who risked their lives to bring a burning ship to safety and prevented a major maritime disaster on the Houston Ship Channel have been presented with the International Maritime Organization Award for Exceptional Bravery at Sea, the highest honor for bravery at sea in global maritime industry.

The pilots, Captain Michael G. McGee and Captain Michael C. Phillips, both from Houston, were presented with the award during a ceremony at the IMO’s headquarters in London on Monday.

houston ship pilots imo bravery at sea award
Captain McGee and Captain Phillips were surrounded by a towering wall of burning fuel when the ship they were piloting burst into flames in the Houston Ship Channel.

The award recognizes the pilots’ role in preventing what could have escalated into a major maritime incident on the Houston Ship Channel, one of the busiest commercial shipping waterways in the United States.

The incident took place just after midnight on September 6, 2016 while piloting the unladen tanker Aframax River. As they were undocking the ship from a terminal, it suddenly lost propulsion and drifted into two mooring dolphins, causing a breach in one of the ship’s fuel tanks and spilling diesel, which ignited within moments.

Surrounded by flames up to 90 ft. tall, Captain McGee and Captain Phillips remained at their stations on the bridge and managed to maneuver the vessel away from nearby tank ships and other infrastructure. As Captain Phillips coordinated communications and firefighting efforts with the United States Coast Guard and local fireboats, Captain Phillips grabbed a fire extinguisher and put out a raging fire on the port bridge wing.

The inferno was extinguished after about 90 minutes, leaving both pilots exhausted and suffering minor burns. Still onboard, the pilots, using tugs, were then able to bring the damaged tanker safely to a mooring.

A video of the inferno was captured by the crew of another vessel in the area:

Captain McGee and Captain Phillips were nominated by the International Maritime Pilots’ Association (IMPA), while the Award was decided by a panel of judges and endorsed by the IMO Council at its 118th session in July.

Presenting the pilots with medals and certificates, IMO Secretary-General Kitack Lim said the pilots showed great initiative and heroism while faced with extraordinary circumstances.

Accepting the Award, Captain Phillips agreed with Secretary-General Lim that the incident was not something that they encountered during routine piloting duties.

“It’s also not something that we train for or practice. Frankly, we didn’t have a lot of time to even think about what we needed to do. We just did it,” Captain Philips said. “We’d like to think, however, that we did what we did in large measure because we’re state pilots. We’re used to taking control when we climb aboard a ship. Pilots don’t sit back and wait for others to tell them what to do. We also feel a deep responsibility for protecting our port.”

In the end, no lives were lost and there was no serious damage to pier structures or facilities in the incident.

In February, Rear Admiral David R. Callahan for the USCG 8th District presented Captain McGee and Captain Phillips with Meritorious Public Service Awards for their actions. 

“We are proud to be state commissioned pilots and proud of what state pilots do in safeguarding their respective ports. In that respect, we accept this award on behalf of our fellow pilots in Houston and everywhere else in the world,” added Captain Philips at Monday’s award ceremony.

The annual Bravery at Sea award was established by IMO to provide international recognition for those who, at the risk of losing their own life, perform acts of exceptional bravery, displaying outstanding courage in attempting to save life at sea or in attempting to prevent or mitigate damage to the marine environment.

For 2017, 33 nominations were received from 16 Member States and five non-governmental organizations. Three of the nominations received Certificates of Commendation, while five were given Letters of Commendation.