The families of two dead seamen want answers as to why a loaded Bouchard oil barge exploded off the coast of Texas. The Coast Guard’s public hearing unleashed a torrent of frustration by Bouchard crew members about vessel maintenance. The purpose of the investigation is to make recommendations to prevent future disasters. The full series of articles on the hearing can be found here.
- Testimony indicates oil tanker company ignored dangerous vapor leaks
- Fatal explosion opens window into Bouchard Transportation safety culture
- Coast Guard to determine cause and responsibility for deaths
By Barbara Liston (Clearview Post) – The brother of a seaman who died in an explosion of a Bouchard Transportation oil barge, a former Bouchard barge captain and a retired U.S. Coast Guard commander all testified on Thursday that the company failed for months in 2017 to address a hazardous gas vapor leak on a sister barge.
The testimony came on the final day of a two-week Coast Guard hearing in Houston into the cause of the explosion that egilled Zachariah Jackson, 28, and Du’jour Vanterpool. 26. The seamen were working on the fully loaded Bouchard Barge No. 255 in October 2017 when the force of the blast blew them into the water off the coast of Texas.
Jackson’s body was never found.
Morgan Jackson testified that he worked on Bouchard’s sister barge, the B275, the same year his brother was on the B255. In May, Jackson said he became sickened by so much gas vapor in a B275 cargo hold that it took him two hours to recover from the exposure. Jackson said he reported the leak to company management but it had not been fixed by the time he left the B275 in August.
Then-B275 captain Adam Cowart testified that he became significantly alarmed by the leak in October when a gas meter registered the gas concentration at an explosive level and the company refused to send the barge to the shipyard for repairs.
Cowart described the experience as like “sitting on a big powder keg.”
Responding to calls from a whistleblower in November 2017, then-Coast Guard Commander James Bigbe said he and a team of Coast Guard inspectors boarded the B275 in New Orleans and discovered explosive vapors in the cargo hold. Bigbe said the cargo hold contained machinery and wiring that could have sparked and ignited the vapor.
“The danger is explosion,” said Bigbe, who was then in charge of the Coast Guard’s New Orleans sector and has since retired.
The three men were among 23 witnesses who testified over nine days before a Coast Guard investigative panel. Bruce Davies, chief of Coast Guard investigations for the Houston-Galveston sector, announced at the conclusion of the public hearing that it would take the team “a substantial amount of time” to reach conclusions as to the cause of the B255 explosion and make recommendations to prevent future loss of life and property.
The B255 was a 448-foot-long, 38-year-old oil barge that was loaded with 140,000 barrels of crude oil enroute to a refinery in Corpus Christi when the explosion occurred.
Jackson’s parents are suing Bouchard Transportation of Melville, New York, owner of the barge and its tugboat, for more than $1 million.
The family alleges 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.
Thursday’s witnesses corroborated testimony from earlier witnesses that Bouchard employees felt pressured to keep quiet about problems with the vessels.
Cowart testified that when another crew member first reported the B275 vapor leak to Bouchard management, “they told him it wasn’t a good time.”
When the meter registered an explosive concentration of gas, Cowart said he was sufficiently alarmed to call the company headquarters on a satellite phone to report the issue to Jon Shaw, then the manager of maintenance and repair.
“He (Shaw) said can you do anything about it?” Cowart testified. “I said not really.”
Cowart said the barge happened to be near a shipyard in Tampa where repairs could be made, but Shaw told him to “blow it down,” meaning blow air into the cargo hold to dissipate the gas, and report back every 30 minutes.
From then on, Cowart said he kept a portable fan blowing into the hold during his watches to keep the gas levels down.
Bigbe said a whistleblower called the Coast Guard on Nov. 7 to report the leak. Bigbe testified that he tracked down the barge, hailed the captain of the Fred Bouchard tugboat that was pulling the B275 and ordered him to head to anchorage to be boarded by a Coast Guard inspection team.
Bigbe said he sent two inspectors and a marine chemist to the B275 but they failed to find a leak after testing the oil tanks. The barge was released after a tankerman assured them he had no problems with the vessel.
Cowart, who considered the Coast Guard boarding a virtual “arrest” of the vessel, testified that he was told by Shaw to not provide any information to the Coast Guard.
In a follow-up call that evening, the whistleblower told Bigbe that the leak was in the cargo hold that the inspectors hadn’t tested. Bigbe himself returned to the barge with another inspection team which found the leak where the whistleblower told him to look.
Bigbe questioned the tankerman who then confirmed that he had been getting explosive readings on the cargo hold every few days since May and had reported the problem to Shaw and Bouchard vice president Kevin Donohue.
Donohue had been scheduled to testify before the Coast Guard panel but pulled out last week. A Bouchard representative told the panel that Donohue wanted to hire a personal lawyer.
According to Bigbe, while he was talking to the tankerman, the tankerman got a phone call from Morty Bouchard of the Bouchard family which owns the company. After the call ended, the tankerman told Bigbe that Morty Bouchard told him “he should have kept the Coast Guard from boarding the vessel,” and that he felt like his job was in jeopardy for allowing the Coast Guard to board.
In earlier testimony, Keith Hardwick, a third mate on a similar Bouchard oil barge, the B245, described how two captains of the B245 walked off the job in the fall of 2017 after Bouchard management ordered them to shove off from the Tampa shipyard where repairs were underway and sail to Houston before the repairs were completed.
Then-Capt. Eric Hinman memorialized the outstanding repair issues in an email to Shaw and shared the email with the barge crew for their “protection” in case of an accident related to the problems, said Hardwick, a longtime personal friend of the Jackson brothers.
The second captain, Greg Spencer, was persuaded by management to take the barge to Houston with the agreement that he could leave the barge before it was loaded, Hardwick testified.
Bouchard of Melville, New York, 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.
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:
(You are here) Part 6: Final Day – ‘Sitting On a Big Powder Keg’