Push being made for stronger safety measures on Houston waterways

Joshua Brazeal drowned in San Jacinto River near ship channel entrance


HOUSTON – Nearly one year after the death of an Alabama man near the Houston Ship Channel there is a push for stronger safety measures among the thousands of towing vessels operating on our waterways.

Joshua Brazeal drowned April 19 during an accident on the San Jacinto River near the entrance to the ship channel.

Keith Brazeal said he and his wife, Shae, are now helping care for his brother’s 5-year-old daughter.

“He was just like any other red-blooded American; worked hard for a living, took care of his family," Keith Brazeal said.

Joshua Brazeal was a deckhand onboard the Ricky J Lebeouf when it capsized and sank while preparing to tow a pair of barges to Beaumont. Surveillance cameras from nearby businesses show the vessel approaching a row of barges before pivoting, skidding against the barges, listing, capsizing and sinking. Four other crew members survived the accident.

A recently released report from the National Transportation Safety Board says the accident happened when the Lebeouf’s relief captain was doing a maneuver known as "downstreaming." The maneuver entails a vessel moving upstream, then coming downstream to connect with a barge or dock.

Investigators pointed out the day of the accident came just after Houston's tax day floods. According to the NTSB report, the San Jacinto river was above flood stage and the current was stronger than usual. Investigators wrote that given the rougher-than-usual river conditions, the U.S. Coast Guard and the vessel’s operator, D&S Marine Service, warned captains not to "downstream" without taking extra precautions.

The NTSB blamed the relief captain for attempting to "downstream" without first consulting the captain or port captain. In fact, investigators wrote, the captain and senior tankerman were asleep in their quarters when the Lebeouf first ran into trouble.

Investigators wrote, “The relief captain refused to be interviewed by both the NTSB and the Coast Guard, thus investigators could not determine what factors, reasoning, and logic he considered before attempting the maneuver without implementing or adhering to any of the established safety precautions. Regardless, his decision was ill-advised and resulted in the death of a crewmember.”

While the NTSB points to a poor decision by the relief captain, Houston attorney Rob Ammons argues there was another factor that contributed to this accident.

"Having the water-tight doors open on the main deck is what caused this ship to sink," Ammons said.” This push boat would not have sank as quickly -- may not have sank at all -- if the water-tight doors had been dogged shut.”

Ammons represents Brazeal's family, who is suing D&S Marine Service. Ammons argues not having those water-tight doors shut means company procedures weren't followed. He also said the water-tight doors being open allowed the Lebeouf to become swamped when it listed.

“I mean, this is a big void, big hole for water to go into,” Ammons said.

It's a point echoed in the NTSB report and by Brazeal's brother, who is also a vessel captain.

"You have these rules in place for a reason," Keith Brazeal said. “If you have rules you don't enforce, then you're going to have accidents.”

This is far from the first time open water-tight doors have contributed to someone's death. In 2010, a Pasadena man drowned when open water-tight doors led to a tug boat getting swamped and sinking in the Ship Channel.

READ: U.S. Coast Guard safety and compliance information

Coast Guard officials told Channel 2 Investigates that at the time of Brazeal’s death, there were no federal requirements for towing vessels to keep water-tight doors shut. However, Coast Guard officials said vessel masters are required to maintain a safe environment on the water and decide whether water-tight doors needed to be opened or closed.

Those who work on these vessels told KPRC that doors can be left open to avoid a build-up of heat and exhaust fumes in the engine room.

“We're not doing anything to really enforce what are unquestionably good maritime practices: keeping the doors shut,” Ammons said. “Is that a violation of a regulation? Perhaps not. Is that a violation of ordinary care? Certainly.”

Still, the Coast Guard has addressed the issue of water-tight doors multiple times in Marine Safety Alerts. KPRC found an alert in 2007, two more in 2008 and another in 2010 urging all vessel masters to close water-tight doors when underway.

The 2010 alert specifically stated, “The Coast Guard continues to investigate casualties where the failure to keep closed or properly maintain water-tight doors is determined to be a causal factor.”

“I just don't want to see more mariners, hard-working men, die in our Houston Ship Channel," Ammons said.

Within the last year, the Coast Guard has established new rules that create an inspection system for towing vessels and minimum safety requirements. A portion of these new rules would require water-tight doors to be closed when a vessel is attempting to “downstream.”

Congress first reclassified towing vessels as vessels subject to inspection in 2004, but it took more than 10 years for the Coast Guard to draft the current regulations and put them into effect.

READ: Department of Homeland Security Final Rule on Inspection of Towing Vessels

The Coast Guard notes the heightened scrutiny came from the large number of accidents involving towing vessels. Coast Guard officials noted that from 2010 to 2014, towing vessels and tows accounted for 67.5 percent of all vessel collisions, allisions and groundings, 29.8 percent of all mariner deaths and injuries and 30.2 percent of all discharges and oil spills greater than 100 gallons.

The new rules will affect 5,920 towing vessels, according to the Coast Guard.

An attorney for D&S Marine Service sent KPRC a written statement in response to questions regarding Brazeal’s death.

“It is the general policy of D&S Marine Services to decline to comment on pending litigation. Consistent with this position in connection with the referenced ongoing litigation, counsel will refrain from commenting in written and/or oral forms. The USCG and NTSB have concluded their investigations into this incident finding no fault on the part of D&S Marine, as stated in the currently-available NTSB report,” attorney C. Barrett Rice wrote.

Chief Petty Officer Bobby Nash told KPRC the Coast Guard would not comment on the incident, because the investigation is not yet complete. Nash also declined to comment on the statement sent to KPRC by Rice.

Nash additionally declined to comment on whether the Lebeouf’s relief captain received any citations or punitive measures as a result of Josh Brazeal’s death. Nash stated a decision regarding the relief captain’s actions was part of the ongoing investigation.