USCG: Seacor Power Responders Were Told the Vessel Was in Port
On Tuesday, the U.S. Coast Guard officer in charge of the New Orleans SAR response center during the Seacor Power capsizing told a panel of investigators that when his team first received the vessel's EPIRB alert, they were told that the vessel was still tied up at the pier.
The alert came in at about 1540 hours on April 13, accompanied by multiple distress alerts from other vessels that had been affected by the same sudden squall that doomed Seacor Power.
When a Coast Guard watchstander called the Seacor Power's operator to find out more details, including the vessel's current position, the company representative said that he could "guarantee" that the vessel was at the dock - not out in the Gulf.
"The person who answered told us that the vessel itself was still moored in Fourchon," said Lt. j.g. Brandon Critchfield, the officer on duty at the time of the casualty. "That particular beacon, the first alert was unlocated [lacked a position fix] . . . and because it was unlocated, all we had to go off of was that person's word. Because of all the other beacons we had going on, we proceeded to determine distress on the other beacons."
The watchstanders had a lot on their hands. A serious distress situation involving a sinking tugboat came up at about the same time: Four crewmembers who were on board were preparing to abandon ship, and they needed a helicopter rescue. Another case involving a sinking houseboat also took up attention, along with some accidental non-distress alerts. For the next half an hour, according to Critchfield, the command center relied upon the information from the phone call for its assessment of Seacor Power's status.
About 30 minutes after the first call with the Seacor representative, Critchfield said, the command center received reports from other vessels about a large vessel that had overturned in the Gulf. At about the same time, they got a second call from a different Seacor employee. "He was getting reports that his vessel was overturned . . . [and] that's the final moment that everything clicked that it was the Seacor [Power]. The thing that kind of kept us in reserve or away from thinking it was the Seacor was that we'd already made a phone call [to the company] and we were told the Seacor was still in port."
The caller also reported that there were seven persons on board Seacor Power, when in fact there were 19. Over the course of the evening, the exact number of people on board was something that the responders "could not get nailed down," Critchfield said. Early reports from survivors suggested a crew complement of 17. Other reports from Seacor personnel suggested 18 on board. "I don't think I ever heard the number 19 until the following morning," said Critchfield. "Not knowing how many people we were looking for became extremely frustrating."
The task of looking for survivors was a significant challenge. The air stations in New Orleans and Mobile were affected by the same weather system that had impacted marine traffic, and it "wasn't safe" for Coast Guard air rescue assets to fly out to the scene, he said. A civilian helicopter and a brand new, not-yet-commissioned Coast Guard cutter that happened to be out on sea trials were some of the first assets on scene.
Finally, at Critchfield's suggestion, Air Station Corpus Christi dispatched its aircraft. Approaching at longer range from the west, outside of the storm system, they were able to access the area and start a search pattern. The first HC-144 from Corpus Christi got on scene and began search operations in "a couple hours" after the call, Critchfield said.
Ultimately, six out of 19 crewmembers were rescued, and six bodies were recovered. The remaining seven crewmembers have not been found.
Chief mate recounts Seacor Power's final moments
On Monday, the most senior surviving officer of the capsized liftboat Seacor Power testified before a Coast Guard hearing about the vessel's final moments off the coast of Port Fourchon, Louisiana.
Bryan Mires, the chief mate, told the panel that he was on the bridge with Capt. Dave Ledet on the afternoon of April 13. The weather had been relatively calm as they departed port, but the vessel was hit by a sudden rain squall and whiteout conditions at about 1500 hours. Winds increased from 20 miles an hour to nearly 80 miles an hour - challenging conditions for a flat-bottomed jackup vessel. The boat was transiting near several oil platforms, so Mires suggested turning into the wind and lowering the boat's jackup legs to the seafloor to anchor it in place, reducing the risk of drifting.
As Mires began the turn into the wind, the vessel listed to starboard. He began the process of lowering the legs, and the list continued to worsen. Mires told the captain that he thought the vessel might capsize; despite Capt. Ledet's last-minute attempts to maneuver, the Seacor Power went over on her side. Mires hit the general alarm, and he survived by grabbing the door of the wheelhouse. Capt. Ledet fell; his body was recovered by the Coast Guard during the search and rescue response.