Bad communication between the bridge and the deck contributed to the ferry boat accident that nearly drowned a crew member a week ago. A top inspector with the U.S. Coast Guard, Lieut. Joshua Pennington, told the Gazette on Friday: "I blame communication overall. There was poor communication between the crew lowering the vessel [rescue boat] and the bridge. Typically they communicate by radio, but they weren't using radios at the time."
Lieutenant Pennington, a senior investigator at the Marine Safety Office in Providence, is far from finished with his investigation into the Monday, August 4, rescue drill accident that almost cost the life of crewman Barry Brooks and endangered the life of another, Mark LaLiberte. Both men were in a rescue boat when it overturned while they were participating in a practice drill to rescue a Coast Guard mannikin. Mr. Brooks lost consciousness when he was dragged beneath the overturned rescue boat. He was rescued by a swimmer and later revived on the deck of the Vineyard Haven Yacht Club committee boat Vigilance.
While the Coast Guard marine safety office often does not share its findings until months after an incident, Lieutenant Pennington said the fact that an impartial Coast Guard investigator was aboard, observing the whole exercise, makes his work much easier.
More interviews remain to be done. There were 232 passengers on the ferry at the time of the accident.
The lieutenant said the intent of the Coast Guard is to help the Steamship Authority management and employees learn by their mistakes and to prevent an accident of this sort from happening again. He said they are weighing what happened against what the Coast Guard and the Steamship Authority's policies require.
"It is the policy of the company that the vessel must come to a full stop, and then the rescue boat is dropped," Lieutenant Pennington said. "They have that policy. Did it happen? Yes and no."
Lieutenant Pennington said the ferry did come to a complete stop. But at some point the master of the vessel, David Dandridge, chose to put the vessel in reverse to bring the entire ferry closer to the floating dummy.
"There was no communication to pass the word. So when it stopped at that moment, the rescue boat was placed in the water and there were people in the boat." When the Islander started going to stern, it was pulling the rescue boat backwards, the lieutenant said.
Water pressure was placed on the stern of the rescue boat and for some reason a painter - intended to keep the rescue boat alongside the ferry - parted. This caused the rescue boat to swing perpendicular to the ferry. "The bow of the rescue boat is now toward the hull of the ferry," the lieutenant said. "At that point the boat capsized with the two men aboard."
Mr. Pennington said: "We have not come to any conclusion. The investigation is still under way. We still want to know everything about what happened in that moment."
The lieutenant would not speak specifically to any conclusions that might be drawn from the Coast Guard's work. Typically, he said, investigations result in some conclusion. The lowest level of response is to recommend that safety issues be addressed. "The next level up is to write a letter of warning, a warning to the mariner. You need to exercise caution in the future. The next step up is a suspension and revocation action. That is when we suspend a mariner's license or revoke it based on conduct, negligence or violations of law. It is not something we do lightly."
At this point, Lieutenant Pennington said, his office is looking into company policy and procedures and operations manuals. "We really look for the root cause. That takes time."
Lieutenant Pennington said after the MV Islander tied up at Woods Hole, all of the crew members were submitted to drug and alcohol testing. The alcohol testing came up negative. He said they are still awaiting the results from the drug tests.
After the ferry Islander tied up at Woods Hole on that morning, a relief crew was assigned. "The relief crew came on board and the inspection continued," he said. A new man overboard rescue was undertaken by the same inspector. A different dummy was put into the water and the same rescue boat was sent. "They completed the rescue satisfactorily and the vessel went back into service," Lieutenant Pennington said.
Mr. Pennington said there has been some question about the effectiveness of the rescue boat. He said a similar rescue boat capsized and caused problems on the ferry Nantucket in September of 2001. "We have determined that it isn't mechanical or structural but more of a human factor. In the case of September 2001, the ferry was still making way when the boat was put in the water. The same sort of thing happened here. When the boat is placed into moving water it is not as stable as when the vessel has fully stopped."
Meanwhile, Mr. Brooks of East Falmouth was released on Thursday from Rhode Island Hospital in Providence and is recovering at home. Paula Peters, a spokesman for the Steamship Authority, said: "We don't know when he will return to work." He is expected to report back to work soon after having made a full recovery.
On Friday, the four crew members of the Vineyard Haven Yacht Club Vigilant, who rescued the two Steamship Authority crewmen from the water, plus 20 youngsters from the club, were given a full tour of the ferry. Ms. Peters said: "I presented each of the children with a certificate of appreciation. Each got a bag with gifts inside, including candy and a Frisbee with Steamship Authority logo. They were all wonderful. Bridget Tobin was the tour guide."
Ralph Packer of Tisbury Towing & Transportation Inc. said on Friday that Sirius, the company tugboat captained by Paul Bangs, was helpful after the Monday morning accident. The Islander was drifting, Mr. Packer said, and the tug helped her back into the channel.