SSA Declines Release of Report on Accident
By JULIA WELLS
Three months after an accident that nearly claimed the life of one of its employees during a routine training exercise, the Steamship Authority is refusing to release the results of its own internal investigation into the mishap.
On August 4 Barry Brooks, an able-bodied seaman who works for the boat line, was trapped under water and almost drowned after a man-overboard drill on the ferry Islander went suddenly wrong. The incident was marked by a dramatic rescue when a passenger on the ferry jumped overboard and swam underneath an overturned dinghy to free Mr. Brooks, whose leg was entangled in a rope.
Capt. David Dandridge, a respected Vineyard captain who has a solid track record for safety, was at the helm at the time of the incident.
A short time after the accident the Coast Guard said poor communication between the bridge and the deck contributed to the accident.
It is understood that the SSA internal investigation includes a detailed report, which among other things is critical of Captain Dandridge. The draft report was written by SSA port captain Greg Gifford and was completed some four weeks ago.
Boat line general counsel Steven Sayers said yesterday that the report has been reviewed by boat line chief executive officer Fred C. Raskin and other senior managers at the boat line, including himself. He said the report has also been shared with Captain Dandridge.
It is understood that Captain Dandridge agreed to undergo some kind of remedial training as a result of the report and that he achieved high marks during the training.
But Mr. Sayers insisted yesterday that the report is still in draft form and that he is not certain whether it is complete. Mr. Sayers said he is unable to obtain more information because Captain Gifford is out on medical leave and has not yet returned.
Mr. Sayers said the boat line has no written policy for handling internal investigations into accidents on ferries.
"I believe it's an application of common sense," he said.
Because there is no clear policy, Mr. Sayers said he could only guess at who will take responsibility for the final outcome of the investigation.
"I would imagine that the appropriate members of management will review it and determine what action will be taken. Ideally it would be agreed on by consensus, but ultimately I would assume that the port captain would make a decision. But we haven't reached that stage yet," he said.
The port captain is a member of management and is responsible for supervising vessel operations and also the captain of the vessel.
"He would be responsible for investigating the circumstances and for recommending what appropriate action should be taken," Mr. Sayers said.
Mr. Sayers was fuzzy about whether the draft report includes recommendations. "I would assume that it does," he said.
Over the course of the last month, the Gazette has made repeated requests for the report on the accident under the Massachusetts Public Records Law. This week the Gazette also made a written request to the U.S. Coast Guard for its own investigation into the accident. The request was made under the Freedom of Information Act, a federal law that governs the release of public records.
Lieut. Joshua Pennington, a senior investigator at the Coast Guard Marine Safety Office in Providence, said two weeks ago that the Coast Guard will not release its investigation until the SSA investigation is complete.
Broadly construed on the premise that most government records are public, the Massachusetts Public Records Law permits unfettered access to records, with some clear exceptions. Documents that are marked draft are not usually considered confidential - for example, draft minutes of meetings are considered public documents under the law.
The Steamship Authority is a public state agency created by a special act of the legislature and is governed by the state public records law.
Requests to the Steamship Authority for the records of its investigation into the August ferry accident began by telephone more than three weeks ago.
This week when the boat line was still not responsive, the Gazette put its request in writing.
The August 4 accident took place when the Islander was en route from Vineyard Haven to Woods Hole. The man overboard drill was called by a member of the Coast Guard just after the ferry had traveled outside the breakwater in the Vineyard Haven harbor.
Man overboard drills are conducted routinely on SSA ferries.
Things began normally when the Coast Guard threw a dummy into the water to mark the start of the drill. An inflatable 12-foot rescue boat with an outboard motor was lowered into the water. Mr. Brooks and another employee climbed into the boat from the freight deck of the ferry. But the rescue boat began to take on water and then turned turtle, trapping Mr. Brooks underneath with his leg caught in a line.
A high school teacher who had spent his summer vacation on the Vineyard and was a passenger on the outbound ferry jumped into the water and swam beneath the rescue boat to free Mr. Brooks's leg from the tangled rope.
The accident was also witnessed by young sailors aboard a committee boat for the Vineyard Haven Yacht Club.
Mr. Brooks was unconscious when he was pulled from the water; he was transported to shore by the yacht club committee boat.
The able bodied seaman was hospitalized and later recovered from the ordeal.
Yesterday Mr. Sayers put some distance between himself and the boat line report on the accident.
"I am not refusing to release the report. We will release it when it is completed - I can't say for sure when, but we expect to have it finished promptly," Mr. Sayers said. He also said:
"I am not that close to the preparation of the report - the port captain is the one who wrote it and I am not certain whether the captain's comments will change. I have to be certain that we are releasing accurate information, and I do not know whether the report has been checked for factual accuracy.
"While we agree that investigations of incidents such as these should be made public, I want to confirm what our obligations are."
Mr. Sayers pointed to a 2002 state supreme court decision that centers on the question of balancing the public's right to know with protecting the privacy of employees and certain personnel records.
"This is an important matter and we should be sure that we have done all the right things. The report is not yet final," Mr. Sayers said.
"Common sense would say that an agency's completed investigation of an incident such as this should be made public. But sometimes the law does not always follow common sense," he concluded.
Mr. Raskin said yesterday that the report is ready to be released once Mr. Gifford returns.
"We're ready to ready release it, and we will release it when we get signoff from the guy who wrote it," he said.