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Third day of public hearings on capsizing of Seacor Power

Day 3 of seacor hearings.PNG
Posted at 6:53 AM, Aug 04, 2021

Wednesday, August 4, marked the third day of the two-week long schedule of formal public hearings on the capsizing of the liftboat Seacor Power.

The daily hearings begin at 8:00 am at the Courtyard Marriot Hotel in Houma and will continue until August 13.

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.

US Coast Guard Command Duty Officers and Boatswain's mates testified in-person and virtually during Wednesday's hearing.

Day 3

Lieutenant Brandon Critchfield, a United States Coast Guard Command Duty Officer for District 8 was the first to testify on Wednesday.

On the day of the incident, Crithcfield was serving as a Command Duty Officer on a 24-hour rotation at the District 8 office in New Orleans.

Critchfield described his morning as "low key." He mentioned was able to clear his email inbox and catch up on training before reading the news.

As his rotation progressed into the afternoon, Critchfield said he looked out of the office window and remembered seeing a rain wall progressing into the New Orleans area. The wind had also begun to pick up.

He and another watchstander viewed the rain. He recalled that the rain storm looked "intense" but, "It appeared, from our vantage point, like an afternoon storm that came through."

Critchfield said that nothing from the weather forecast from that day had jumped out to him as unusual.

Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon (EPIRB) alerts were received on the command center computer around 1:30 pm. He said many were non distress but they began coming in rapidly at around 3:30 pm.

Critchfield said the volume of EPIRB alerts were unusual for their office.

A couple beacons were received within minutes of each other, and the watchstanders began working to determine their status.

An EPIRB alert from the Seacor Power came in at around 3:40 pm. That first alert received from the beacon was unlocated. Critchfield said normally when a beacon is received, the data would give an exact location.

They were able to use the registration information on the alert to contact the person to provide detail on the vessel's status.

Critchfield said that watchstanders were able to get in touch with one of the persons registered as contact for the Seacor Power. That person told the Coast Guard that the vessel was still moored in Port Fourchon.

Critchfield said the caller guaranteed that the vessel was still moored and that the alert was probably due to maintenance on the beacon.

Based on the person's word, Crithfield said that his team proceeded on to other distress beacons.

An overwhelming majority of the time, EPIRB alerts are confirmed by the Coast Guard to be non-distress, according to Critchfield.

Critchfield said that once the information is obtained about the beacon, paperwork is filled out with a summary of the actions taken to identify if the beacon was from a distressed vessel.

That information would normally be entered into the systems immediately following the alert and identification, but Critchfield said that those inputs were delayed due to the number of other EPIRB alerts taking place that day.

Some of the other instances included a tugboat south of New Orleans that was taking on water with four people on board and another alert of a house boat with one person on board also taking on water.

After 30 minutes, Critchfield said that a Seacor representative called the Coast Guard and reported that he was receiving information that his vessel was overturned and in distress.

Before getting off the phone, the Seacor representative said there were 7 persons on board the vessel.

Critchfield said it wasn't known by District Command until the following morning that there were, in fact, 19 on board.

Following the phone call, Critchfield said reports began coming in to the New Orleans Sector in Algiers that a large vessel had capsized. Those reports came in from other vessels in the area.

The EPIRB was relocated and watchstanders agreed that something had occurred with the Seacor Power. Command worked with air stations to launch but they were having difficulties launching due to high winds and lightning in New Orleans and Mobile.

Air traffic was being diverted from the Mobile area and it was determined that launching from there was unsafe. It was a reassessment that Critchfield said happens often.

Reports came in that a civilian helicopter was attempting to go out and offer support. Another report indicated that a coast guard cutter, Glenn Harris, was in response to the scene. The vessel had not yet been commissioned to the Coast Guard and was training when crews responded. The cutter belonged to Bollinger and, according to Critchfield, was a good Samaritan vessel. Some Coast Guard personnel were on board during training.

Critchfield said he called the Corpus Christi Sector for assistance and they responded that they would be on the way within the hour.

"Luckily they were able to get on scene in a couple hours and start in searches and assist as a surface asset," he said.

MH-65 Delta helicopters were available for use by the coast guard but weather made it difficult for those aircraft to fly.

Later in the night, a 45-foot Coast Guard response boat had located a body in the water. While trying to retrieve the body a member of the Coast Guard boat crew fell overboard. Critchfield said the Coast Guard boat crew member was recovered but the body was not.

Critchfield clarified that the body was not responsive while attempting to recover.

Unable to retrieve the body due to rough seas, the crew asked to return.

"The biggest challenge we had was communication," he said. "Communication just seems to be a common thing that we need to improve on. There's only so many phones and people."

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Following an hour-long recess, Lieutenant Seth Gross of the United States Coast Guard Sector New Orleans testified.

Lt. Gross testified about the actions taken during basic search and rescue case and those undertaken by the New Orleans Sector pertaining to the Seacor Power incident.

Gross said that normally alerts are sent from sector command and search assets are deployed with support from the district command center.

Marine VHF radios are used to contact mariners directly.

Several sized patrol boats are available to the sector for use in rescue response along with aircraft through the Command Center in New Orleans.

The area of responsibility for the New Orleans Sector extends from White Lake in Vermilion Parish and East to the Pearl River. Coverage also extends 200 nautical miles offshore of Louisiana's Coast.

Gross was on command on April 13, 2021. He began his 12-hour shift that day at 4:25 am.

He conducted a typical pass down and introduced himself to the watch team before following the checklist to ensure all operations were functioning properly.

Gross said that the day was fairly standard day until around 4:00 pm that afternoon when the station was inundated with distress calls from vessels.

A total of six or seven cases were reported to the station during that afternoon. Gross noted specifically that a tugboat had become inundated during the severe weather. He said it was not unusual to receive that number of calls.

At 4:28 pm, Gross said an initial notification from the Rockfish indicated that a liftboat was in distress. He said that there was some communication issues with the captain due to wind and dialect. It was the eighth individual distress call received by the sector that day.

According to Gross, no radio calls came in directly from the Seacor Power on the day of the incident.

Following the call, Gross said the sector issued an urgent marine information broadcast within minutes containing the longitude and latitude for the vessel so that good Samaritan vessels could respond to the area.

A non-commissioned cutter, Glenn Harris, diverted to the area within 34 minutes of the initial notification of the capsizing from the Rockfish. Gross said the cutter remained on scene next to the capsized vessel to search for survivors in the water.

Eighty to ninety knot winds and up to 16 foot seas with "whitewashed visibility" was the report from the Rockfish regarding conditions when the capsizing took place.

Gross said that the Search and Rescue Optimal Planning System (SAROPS) was utilized by the sector in the planning and execution search and rescue operations. The program functions on data input and creates search action plans.

The Amberjack was also diverted from the west with an estimated time of arrival of 6 to 8 hours.

The first aviation asset to arrive on scene, according to Gross, was from the Corpus Christi Sector. The helicopter dropped buoys in the area to detect the set and drift of objects in the water.

The buoys were placed to detect the environmental conditions and anticipate the set and drift of the capsized vessel and the probability of future movements to aid in search and rescue.

When the sector New Orleans night watch arrived at 4:30 pm, they were split into two units. According to Gross, one unit continued to work the Seacor Power case and the other unit to continue regular operations.
Gross ended his duty around midnight on April 13.

The initial report received by the New Orleans sector command was 17 individuals were on board the Seacor Power at the time of capsizing. Gross said they later received a report from Seacor Marine that 19 crewmembers were on board.

That report was received around 6:00pm, according to Gross.

An email entered as a new exhibit during Wednesday's hearing confirmed that information. Seacor Marine provided the New Orleans sector with information on the crew including names.

On the topic of weather, Gross said that he recalled seeing a email communication from the National Weather Service indicating a slight risk for severe weather on April 13.

He said that while the sector can send out weather alerts to mariners via the VHF system, they are not required.

Gross said that in the event of a tropical storm or hurricane, the sector would broadcast to mariners. He said they rely heavily on the National Weather Service to make special marine warnings.

Gross was asked by the representative for first mate Bryan Mires about marine warnings that were issued by the National Weather Service during the afternoon.

Gross said that special marine warnings are not regularly broadcast by the Coast Guard and are only done as a way to support mariners. Broadcasts made by the Coast Guard, he said, are mainly for small craft warnings and gale force wind warnings.

The NTSB asked Gross why station Grand Isle was not notified about the capsizing immediately after the report from the Rockfish was received. Gross said they should have been notified quickly by the Search and Rescue Coordinator. That call was reportedly made at 5:35 pm.

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The final testimonies on Wednesday were from Boatswain's Mates Jessica Gill and Anthony Abbate who were stationed at Station Grand Isle on April 13.

Abbate and Gill were assigned as the coxswains in charge of the 45' response boats on April 13, 2021.

A total of four boats are located at the station but only one is required to respond to incidents. Two boats were utilized by Station Grand Isle on the during response to the capsizing.

Gill explained details from the day of the incident. She was filling in for a coxswain that had been away at training.

Most of the day had been normal before a report of the weather was made. Gill said she periodically checked for weather on the NOAA app. The crews spoke with each other about the weather which was reporting normal three to five foot seas.

Crew members prepared the boats and units and attempted damage control in preparation of possible storms.

Abbate said that in his four years at the station, he had never seen anything like the event except during a hurricane.

When the storm hit, Gill said she was inside the station. Several calls were received by radio and telephone. Gill said that Grand Isle Station commander Lt. Brian Waters walked in and asked if the crews had gotten the call about 17 to 19 people in the water off Port Fourchon.

Gill said the coast guard had been informed that there were people sitting on the hull of a capsized vessel. Abbate testified that the coast guard crews were already headed to the scene when he was told the capsizing was of a large vessel with 17 people on board.

Crews were assembled and risk assessments were made. Gill said that crews were underway within 10 minutes.

The boat crews encountered rough weather, 8 to 10 foot seas beyond Barataria Pass. Seas were closer to 10 to 12 feet with strong winds closer to the capsized vessel. Gill said that winds were up to 90 mph that day at around 4:30 pm.

A tug vessel heading into the Port radioed to the boat crews to let them know the location of the capsized vessel.

Both boat crews arrived at the capsized vessel at same time.

Gill said that four or five Seacor Power crewmembers were holding onto the capsized liftboat upon their arrival.

The seas were high and crashing into the Seacor Power making rescue difficult. The two described the waters as "a washing machine."

One of the Seacor crewmembers was able to enter the water and was retrieved with an expandable boat hook. The crewmember had a large laceration on his abdomen, according to Abbate.

Abbate contacted the Glenn Harris to let them know that they would be returning to Port Fourchon with the injured crewmember.

While Abbate's boat left the scene, Gill's 45 foot coast guard boat remained and attempted to communicate with the remaining Seacor crewmembers.

A helicopter also arrived and was able to drop life jackets to survivors.

When Abbate's boat returned, he said his crew attempted to help the helicopter lower a life raft for the survivors. They were not successful.

During that time, a second Seacor Power crewmember reportedly slipped into the water and was recovered by Gill's boat within minutes. That person was unresponsive face down in the water, according to Gill.

Gill said that the person was able to be taken on board her boat but was lost when he and a coast guard engineer fell overboard.

Following the incident, Gill's boat went to Port Fourchon while Abbate's boat remained at the scene with the non-commissioned cutter Glenn Harris.

Abbate said that Seacor Power crewmembers entered into the vessel as it got dark to find refuge from the high seas and winds.

When they were unable to make contact with those members, Abbate said the coast guard crews returned to Port Fourchon.

WATCH

Sessions can be watched online at this link: https://livestream.com/uscginvestigations.

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BELOW ARE A QUICK RECAP OF DAYS 1 AND 2

DAY 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.

DAY 2

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.

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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: accidentinfo@uscg.mil

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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