The second week of formal public hearings into the capsizing of the liftboat Seacor Power began Monday, August 9.
Over the first week, testimonies have been heard from two survivors of the capsizing, witnesses to the capsizing, and Coast Guard personnel who were on duty the day of the incident.
The daily hearings begin at 8:00 am at the Courtyard Marriot Hotel in Houma and will continue until August 13.
At the beginning of Monday's hearing, Capt Tracy Phillips read fragments of testimony from survivors of the Seacor Power.
Those testimonies gave a clearer picture of how the survivors managed to escape the capsized vessel and documented the actions of survivors. Many gave reports of those had escaped the vessel but are still unaccounted for. Statements read were from survivors Brandon Aucoin, James Gracien, Zachary Louviere, and Charles Scallan.
On Monday, Philip Grigsby, Lead forecaster with the National Weather Service will testify. Also scheduled to testify are US Coast Guard COMMCEN Commanding Officer CDR Vince Taylor and Seacor Superintendent Tommy Saunier.
During these hearings the Coast Guard will consider evidence related to the capsizing of the Seacor Power and the loss of 13 of its 19 crewmembers. Survivors of the incident and representatives of the agencies involved are scheduled to speak over the course of the sessions. See the schedule.
Sessions can be watched online at this link: https://livestream.com/uscginvestigations.
National Weather Service lead forecaster Philip Grigsby was the first to testify on Monday morning. He has worked with the National Weather Service since 2004 and has been a lead forecaster at the Weather Forecast Office in Slidell since January 2021.
Grigsby was on the day shift as a lead forecaster on April 13 the day of the Seacor Power capsizing.
He said staffing was a little tighter on that day due to some forecasters on leave. COVID-19 protocols only allowed for five people in the office that day.
Grigsby said that despite the number of staff, everything was handled as normal.
A risk of severe weather had increased to marginal overnight for the Baton Rouge area to the south east across New Orleans and the coastal waters.
Grigsby said that thunderstorms began developing very quickly and special weather statements for strong thunderstorms including hail were being issued by around 9:00 am.
At 11:30 am, Grigsby said that a bow echo had formed on the northern side of Baton Rouge and had begun to move into the eastern parishes.
A bow echo, he explained, are when strong winds descend down in a jet stream towards the ground causing the leading edge of storms to bow out creating strong winds on that edge.
Grigsby said the formation of a bow echo is a common severe weather event that happens in the Louisiana area. They will typically occur in the spring and fall during the peak severe weather season.
An added feature of this bow echo, according to Grigsby, was a wake low that formed behind the system. It is a broader mid-level rotation or low pressure that forms a larger bow echo systems. Grigsby said the formations are not as common with one occurring in Louisiana about two to three times a year.
The weather events can normally last about three to four hours and can sustain winds of 40 knots.
Grigby said the wake low on April 13 was stronger than typically seen and lasted a lot longer. He noted that this storm lasted at least 12 hours with strong 50 knot winds.
The wake low is belived to have strengthened the bow echo as it pushed offshore. The National Weather Service, he said, is currently analyzing weather from that day to better understand what caused the wake low to last so long and create such strong winds.
Small craft advisories and wake zone warnings are usually issued for wake low instances. A small craft advisory was in place that day because of the wake low.
Grigsby said that wake lows aren't becoming more common in the area. Another weaker wake low occurred after the April 13 event but he said it was less severe.
As stronger winds arrived in the area New Orleans area, a special marine warning was issued for Lake Pontchartrain and Lake Maurepas. Grigsby said the winds were about 34 knots and the system was only moving at 10 mph.
The system was what would eventually effect Port Fourchon and the offshore waters.
As the storm system pushed southward an update was issued at 2:27 pm. It included all of the coastal waters including Port Fourchon. The impact warning indicated that those in the area should expect 34 knots wind gusts or greater and higher waves. Boats were warned of capsizing and damage and to return to safe harbor if possible.
The main area of concern was Barataria Bay. Grigsby said the radar indicated the strongest possible winds were headed to that area.
Grigsby said that, while mariners wouldn't be too concerned about the 2:27 pm advisory, it should have something they should have kept in mind due to the progression of the storm.
At 2:57 pm a third warning was issued. This included the coastal waters from Port Fourchon to the Lower Atchafalaya River and out 20 nautical miles. And coast waters from Southwest Pass of the Mississippi River to Port Fourchon from 20 to 60 nautical miles.
Winds were at 34 knots or greater and hail was expected. Grigsby said that at around 3:00 pm he received an indication of 43 knot winds at Galliano.
The warning included the possible impacts for boats including possible capsizing or damage and the call for them to return to safe harbor if possible.
A final warning on April 13 was issued at 3:58 pm. It expanded to include four marine zones west of the Mississippi River and out 60 nautical miles.
Grigsby said that his warning wasn't different from the other warnings. With a lack of weather information he was unable to accurately put the winds higher. But that, he said, would not have made a difference in the severity of the weather warning.
Video played during Monday's hearing showed weather conditions at Port Fourchon during the afternoon of April 13.
Grigsby described a shelf cloud on the leading edge of thunderstorms seen approaching. As the heavier rain moved in, the video showed the winds increase. Grigsby said that the system was moving from the north to the south.
Grigsby said the video showed weather conditions that are classic of a bow echo. The winds were strong enough, the video showed, to push a crane over as it moved over Port Fourchon.
In the span of 8 minutes the conditions went from calm to intense.
Grigsby said that it is normal for these types of storms to last a total of 15 minutes.
Commander Vince Taylor of the US Coast Guard COMMCEN in Chesapeake, Virginia testified Monday about the messaging system used by the Coast Guard to issue weather and special marine warnings to mariners.
Taylor testified that non-routine special marine warnings from the National Weather Service are issued to mariners directly from the Coast Guard at several times during the day via the navigational telex (NAVTEX) system.
Information from the NAVTEX includes offshore information blended with onshore for all eight zones in the Gulf of Mexico as well as other marine areas across the country.
Taylor said that there is no notification if a warning does not go out, but those monitoring will be notified if there is an issue with the dissemination of marine warnings.
Watchstanders can check and are required to check whether marine warnings go out correctly during their 12-hour shift.
Taylor said that on April 13, 202, watchstanders in Virginia noticed a connectivity issue with the marine broadcast or NAVTEX system and its connection to the New Orleans site.
The scheduled broadcast at 1500z and 2123z did not occur because of the issue. No special marine warnings were issued during that time due to the connectivity problems.
The last successful message was sent 1300z as a scheduled broadcast which sent out a National Weather Service forecast.
At 0100z the broadcast resumed after internet provider, Verizon, was able to fix the connectivity problem between Chesapeake and New Orleans. Taylor testified that internet connectivity issues like these are very rare.
Another issue was ongoing from April 7-18. The Chesapeake Station notified the public that there was a degradation of services at the New Orleans site for that time frame. During that period, the station was down to four transmitters, both high and low frequency. The transmitters, Taylor testified, allow messages to be sent to mariners.
Taylor said that the degradation didn't make sending messages to mariners impossible. The messaging about the degradation was to make mariners aware that they should be prepared to have other means of communication with the Coast Guard regarding weather.
The connectivity issues, Taylor said, were are not a Coast Guard issue but a Verizon issue.
Seacor Superintendent Tommy Saunier was the last to testify Monday. Saunier has been with Seacor since 1977, and has been in his current role for about 6-7 years. He testified about his role as superintendent and his duties of taking care of repairs and maintenance for Seacor liftboats.
He has covered routine maintenance and dry dockings, when boats are taken to an area that can be drained for repairs and inspections, and has overseen 18-20 dry docks since becoming superintendent.
Saunier said he doesn't feel like there is a "common failure point" when it comes to the boats; mostly, he said, he performs regulation tasks.
The most recent dry dock for the Seacor Power, according to Saunier, was probably March 2021. Crews worked on the cranes, inflatable rafts, fire system, seal tubes, conducted routine repair maintenance, and checked the boat's engines and life jackets, among others. These are all checks conducted "every time," Saunier said.
During the latest dry dock, Saunier said there was a repair not on the routine check list - a dent in the boat's starboard side shell, running "pretty much vertical" and continuing below the waterline. The dent was "not super bad," but something Saunier said he didn't like and had to fix. An estimated 3x6 foot section of the sideshell plating was replaced by Bollinger.
Several years ago, Saunier said the liftboat's crew had reported problems with a starboard list; a crack in the leg was discovered and repaired, fixing the problem.
Saunier said during the check, he had to enter a few of the boat's tanks to replaced their deck hatches, typically done whenever the sealant is rotted or rusted. The hull and engineering room were all in good condition at the time, he said, and the equipment was working.
The pressure of the boat's fire pumps and seals on watertight doors were inspected, along with tank vents are checked, which Saunier said didn't need to be replaced during the Seacor Power's last dry dock. Saunier said the boat's bilge alarms are typically checked by an electrician.
Saunier explained that electrical lighting was on every floor of the Seacor Power, which ran by battery if the ship's power went out. During the dry dock, Saunier said they went "dark ship" and turned all power off to test the battery lighting; he said there were "no problems."
The boat's legs, which measure 265 feet long, are typically checked on a 5-year rotation; Saunier said they were not worked on during the most recent dry dock. Typically, crews check for water in the legs. If there's water, the boat would list or water would pour out of the leg once it is dry docked, he explained.
The boat's two 175-ton cranes wrap around the boat on its port and starboard side. They are also checked annually by Seatrax, the company that builds and manufactures the cranes.
Several photos taken before the capsizing were shown of various rooms, equipment, and items on board the Seacor Power, including an ice box and milk machine that Saunier answered were secured by screws into the wall and deck.
Saunier said that Seacor "never had a technical management position," that he is in operations and not considered a tech manager, "just a superintendent that makes repairs happen." A photo of a job description in the Fleet Operations Manual was shown, listing the responsibilities of the Tech and Operations Manager. Saunier then said he works with the Tech and Ops Manager and would be able to do any jobs assigned to that person.
A diagram of high water alarms on the boat's legs was shown. Saunier said the Seacor Power's high water alarms were in the rudder and engine room. He said there were lights on the top of the legs years ago but "they always had trouble with them," so over 19 years the lights were removed.
Saunier said no major modifications were made to the Seacor Power in the last 5-10 years, and nothing unusual was found at previous dry docks.
Crew members themselves are trained extensively on a 'lock out tag out' program, he explained, and the crew engineer is able to perform routine maintenance as well.
Prior to the April 13 capsizing, Saunier said he was told the Seacor Power had "lost a liferaft" and some grating had come loose on a crane.
Saunier said he couldn't say whether the Seacor Power was tested for issues with leaks during its most recent dry dock, and said he had no idea whether the boat was "vulnerable to taking on water on its starboard side for any reason." He also answered that he had no idea as to why the boat capsized.
Saunier said he had been friends with Captain Ledet and the whole crew for a long time. He said Ledet was "a conservative captain. If he knew of any problem he would not have left."
BELOW IS A RECAP OF WEEK 1
On Monday, survivor Dwayne Lewis shared his story. He said he was taught that if a boat went down in the Gulf, to break a window - but when it came down to it, it took the strength of two men. Lewis added he doesn't know how to swim, so when he entered the water, a new struggle began. He faced 10-12 foot waves amid a torrential downpour, lightning, and high winds.
Also speaking Monday was a captain near the Seacor during the storm, who said the weather that day was unlike anything he's ever experienced.
"It started drizzling, so we walked inside and that's when ... all hell broke loose," captain Ted Duthu said. The liftboat captain was on a nearby boat when the Seacor Power went down. He shared new video taken from his camera during the storm, which had waves higher than the projected 3-5 feet. He observed winds of 112 miles per hour.
When the rain died down, Duthu's crew found the Seacor Power on its side and called mayday.
To read more on Day 1 of testimony, click here.
On Tuesday, the Seacor Power's first mate, Bryan Mires, testified. Mires gave testimony about his experience during the capsizing of the liftboat and the weather conditions on the day of the incident. He detailed the operations of the liftboat and what checks were done by the crew before and during the boat's departure.
Mires said that he and Captain David Ledet discussed the weather on the day of the incident which, he recalled, was sunny with a few clouds.
Mires was the second survivor of the Seacor Power to speak during the hearings. He was one of six crewmembers rescued from the waters following the incident.
Also testifying on Tuesday was Coast Guard SAR Systems Specialist Edwin Thiedeman. He answered questions about the functioning of on-vessel devices that emit distress signals when activated.
To read more on Day 2 of testimony, click here.
On Wednesday, Coast Guard Command Duty Officers Lieutenant Brandon Critchfield and Lieutenant Seth Gross detailed their handling of the search and rescue response to the vessel on April 13.
Critchfield said that there was confusion caused in the District 8 office by incorrect information initially received from Seacor Marine that said the vessel was moored and not in distress. A beacon distress signal received on the afternoon of the incident did not provide details of the liftboat's location.
Boatswain's Mates Jessica Gill and Anthony Abbate also testified Wednesday, recalling their first-hand accounts as coxswains on the 45 foot response boats that arrived at the scene of the capsizing to rescue survivors.
Read more on Day 3 of testimony, here.
Thursday's hearing began with testimony from two members of the Bristow Helicopter flight crew, Jason Jennison and Jim Peters. The two testified about their response to the capsizing of the Seacor Power and the efforts taken to attempt rescues of the survivors on board.
The two said that the intense weather conditions that night and hesitation from the crew to abandon the sinking vessel made rescue attempts difficult.
"We asked them to get into the water," Peters said. "One of them came back on the radio and said, 'I can't swim.' You could hear the terror."
Jennison said at one point during the hearing that getting the crewmembers to jump into the ocean that night, "would have taken a leap of faith to do."
The odds of survival, he said, would have been better had they entered the water rather than staying behind.
"The outcome we wanted didn't happen," Peters said "In our parts, we failed because we didn't get the individuals off and back to base."
Coast Guard Capt. Tracy Phillips, chairwoman of the Coast Guard Marine Board of Investigation, told Peters that she believes that the helicopter crew did the best they could.
Also testifying on Thursday were Lieutenant j.g. Aaron Rice with the United States Coast Guard Marine Safety Unit in Houma and Matthew Barrie a surveyor with the American Bureau of Shipping.
Read more from Day 4 of testimony, here.
Leonard Guidry, the captain of the Glenn Harris, testified on Friday morning. The Glenn Harris, a non-commissioned Coast Guard cutter at the time of the incident, was one of the first boats to respond to the scene following the capsizing.
Guidry testified about his actions to rescue survivors of the Seacor Power along with the Coast Guard and Bristow Helicopter crew.
During his testitmony Guidry said his boat crew took one Seacor Power crewmember on board and was in communication with some of the men on board the capsized vessel. He said that as conditions worsened during the night, two men on board radioed about taking refuge inside a hatch in the ship.
"He was asking for help and how they were going to take shelter in that space inside the ship, where ever the hatch was," said Guidry.
Guidry said after that communication, there were no more calls received from the radio.
Also testifying on Friday were auditors from the American Bureau of Shipping.
Read more from Day 5 of testimony, here.
A blog operated by the Coast Guard will provide hearing updates at www.mariners.coastguard.blog
The National Transportation Safety Board is the leading agency in the Seacor Power investigation. They will also participate in the Coast Guard public hearing. The NTSB is expected to produce an independent report with its own findings.
Anyone wishing to provide information that may assist the investigation and the public hearing can submit that information via email to: firstname.lastname@example.org
The Seacor Power capsized in the Gulf of Mexico on April 13, 2021, approximately seven miles south of Port Fourchon. Nineteen crewmembers were on board at the time of the capsizing. Six crewmembers were initially rescued, and six were recovered unresponsive during the course of the response.
Following the incident, crews searched for a cumulative 175 hours, covering more than 9,200 square nautical miles, over the course of six days.
The search for the remaining seven crewmembers was suspended by the Coast Guard on April 19.
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