Six people are confirmed dead and seven are missing and presumed dead after the Seacor Power lift boat capsized in a storm in the Gulf on April 13. Six people were rescued by the Coast Guard and The accident occurred about 8 miles from the Louisiana coast near Port Fourchon.
As the search for the missing and the investigation into the accident continues, New Orleans maritime lawyer Skip Lambert was asked to discuss the accident on several local radio shows.
Skip Lambert on WWL First News with Tommy Tucker
Tommy: Of course, everybody is watching and waiting and hoping with that search effort that’s going on to find 12 missing crew members of the Seacor Power – is the name of the boat.
It is a lift boat, or as it’s otherwise known, a Jack boat, and here to help us to understand some of what’s going on is Skip Lambert, founder of the Lambert law firm. Good morning, Skip. How are you?
Skip: Good, Tommy. How are you doing?
Tommy: I’m okay. Thanks for taking the time with us. This is the kind of thing you guys deal with every day, but a lot of us don’t know anything about it. What can you tell us about these lift boats? And maybe we’ve seen them with the big four columns on each corner of the boat, when maybe we got stuck by a Drawbridge or something, but how do they generally work? What are they used for et cetera?
Skip: Well, first of all, I have got to join you in your interview this morning was Rick Temple out in Grand Isle in expressing our deep condolences for the families of these people that are missing. These seamen have a risky job in the first place, and we’ll talk a little bit about this lift boat, which is also a risky piece of equipment. But we can’t lose sight of the fact that these families are suffering, and it’s so important that everyone keep them in their prayers.
Skip: Let’s go to the nuts and bolts, and you’re right – Our firm is a maritime firm primarily. We do lots of other stuff too, but we do CLEs on the Death on The High Seas and High Stakes on the High Seas with the Louisiana Association of Justice all the time.
It’s important that we focus on what these boats are meant for. They are virtually work platforms that are powered — this one in particular the Seacor — is powered by a couple of big Caterpillar engines. It can move on its own power. It doesn’t go very fast, about four knots, a little bit better at its top speed. So it’s real slow. And as you pointed out, it’s got some legs that stick up real high when it’s in its floating position. This particular one has three, some have four as you pointed out, but this particular one is a three legged lift boat. It is capable of working in about 200 feet of water. Once it’s jacked up, it’s much more stable than it is when it’s underway on the way to a location where it’s going to do work.
The work that these boats do is generally next to wellheads and small platforms in the Gulf in relatively shallow water that are worked over either to refurbish their oil or gas producing capabilities or plug and abandon them when they’ve outlived their productive life. The boat will go out there under its own power and jack itself up in a location right next to the platform that it is going to work on. Then it’ll preload. It’ll pull it’s haul out of the water just a few feet to get over the top of the waves. It will then fill its tanks with seawater to make it real heavy so that the legs, which are at that point jacked down, so they won’t be sticking up real high – like you see them when you’re crossing a bridge — and they’ll penetrate the soft mud bottom of the Gulf to the point where they become stable. That’ll take several hours.
Then the crew will pump the water out of the tanks and make the vessel light again or lighter. It’ll jack itself up then to it’s working height, which will be several feet above the surface of the Gulf. And in that position, it becomes a work platform and they’ll put out a gangway that’ll make it easy for the people to go back and forth and do the work on the platform. This particular Seacor vessel is called a 265 class. It’s big, it’s 120 feet long. It weighs tons. It is capable of handling 50 people, 50 berths, generally contract workers. It has a crew of about 12. We know that because of course we know that there’s some missing people and that number is rising.
Tommy: I think 19 on board total. Is that what we know, Skip?
Skip: Yes. 19 on board 12 missing at the moment. The crew capacity is 12, and it’ll also carry other passengers and some supervisory personnel.
Tommy: How fast do these boats go, Skip?
Skip: Real slow – 4 knots, max, 4.3 knots, this, this boat. And, and as I say, Tommy, when it’s floating and moving it’s most vulnerable. It can’t handle 80 knot winds. It just can’t. It’s unstable. Once it’s jacked up, it’s more stable. It can handle more weather.
Tommy: In terms of deciding who goes, because the boat was on its way to Tallows, do I have that right, the platform I think is where it was going?
Skip: I think so. Yes, sir.
Tommy: Who would make the call on well, first off, let me take a step back. I initially thought, and I’m glad you gave us that explanation, that in cases of rough weather, they could just settle themselves pretty quickly and anchor themselves to the floor of the Gulf, but that’s kind of a time consuming process, right? From what you’re saying. So that’s not practical to think that could have happened.
Skip: That’s correct. As a matter of fact, that preload process, which is what makes the legs sink down into the bed of the Gulf, is a really important process. Not only does it provide stability for that lift boat while it’s working, but it also avoids some of the tension that would be put on these legs if they were to briefly address the bottom of the Gulf. You can imagine with those kinds of waves and that kind of turbulence, if you had one or more of those legs intermittently contacting the bottom of the Gulf, the torque would tear the structure between the jacking legs and the vessel itself and could cause the vessel to sink. I mean, of course there are other alternatives that could be done to help stabilize the vessel.
Tommy: Like what for example?
Skip: Lowering the leg somewhat. Adding ballasts.
But all of those things take time. As you pointed out, Tommy, the best thing is to watch the weather and not to take the kind of chances that were taken by letting this vessel go under the weather conditions that everyone knew was coming. I mean, this, yeah, sure. Maybe it was 10 knots more than it was supposed to be, or 15 knots (meaning the storm), but that’s a very narrow window, particularly in Louisiana offshore. You and your listening population know how unpredictable the weather is around here. So for this vessel to be dispatched, and you say, who does it, the company does that. And right now the idea of blaming an individual or a victim for any kind of conduct is sorta untimely right now. It’s not appropriate. The idea is that this vessel has all kinds of radios and sideband equipment and satellite communications. I mean this is 2021. This vessel was in communication with a company all the time. So for it to have been dispatched and look at how far away it was from Port Fourchon. It wasn’t far at all.
Tommy: Let me ask you this way, Skip. These boats come and go constantly, right? And the weather changes in the Gulf constantly, but there’s the first time something like this has happened? correct me if I’m wrong.
Skip: No, it’s happened before. Not a lot. But more than you would think what. What happens of course, is that when these things happen, if it doesn’t get the kind of coverage that this particular event has gotten — and rightfully so, it’s a huge deal — that the matters get swept under the rug, so to speak. In other words, there’s a hearing, there’s a finding of some sort of responsibility, there’s a payment of some money. And then if the company is successful, it will be able to avoid significant liability and it will be able to continue. I’m not suggesting that Seacor is a bad company. I’m not suggesting that. I’m suggesting that somebody in the chain of command for one reason or another made a decision that put this vessel and everybody on it in harm’s way.
And in the maritime world, that responsibility is significant. And because of the risks involved in the maritime industry, there are particular legal remedies that both sides have that are unique from a litigation or from a legal standpoint to protect the interests of the individual seaman on the one hand. And then of course the owner and or employer on the other hand. So that’s why it’s important for people who have these issues to be in contact with lawyers that do this kind of thing all the time. And I know that sounds like a commercial somewhat. It’s not meant to be, it’s meant to be the reality of the company has lawyers and investigators out there the minute it happens. People who have loved ones that are at risk have a difficult time getting past their emotions to employ someone who will protect their family interest — timely. And that’s very important. Coast Guard hearings are going to be soon, and that’s the first step, Tommy, as you know, in publicizing what happened. And if there’s no legal representatives there on behalf of some of the victims, it’s a one-sided show
Tommy: Who has the ultimate say so when it comes to whether you go or not in terms of, “Nope, weather’s too bad, too much of a risk, got to err on the side of safety. You gotta be sure we have no accident, nothing bad happens.” Who would have the final say so on that traditionally, Skip?
Skip: It’s a vessel owner. And you know, the blame of course, or the attempt to shift responsibility to an individual like the captain of the vessel. I mean, everybody knows the captain of the vessel is the captain with the vessel, and he is the captain of the vessel, but he gets his orders from someplace else. And if he wants to remain the captain of the vessel and he’s ordered by Seacor to leave port on his way to a work site, then he might do that. Despite his reluctance. Otherwise he won’t be the captain of the vessel
Tommy: Quickly before we let you go. It’s been very insightful and I appreciate your time. But if there had not been the video of this boat, I don’t think it would have gotten the attention that it has gotten. And I just want to know what your feelings on this are, because you said it’s happened before. Do you think it’s the video that made this such a story and that got such attention?
Skip: Tommy, you’re right. And I think that, you know, that I listened to your show. I know you, you’re talking about the Floyd matter and the trial and so on, and we can all see today how video plays such an important part in informing the public of what’s going on. And it’s less of a tool in the maritime world because some companies actually have rules restricting where cell phones can be used and where video can be taken. And the attempt is to prevent the kind of visualization, so to speak, the kind of public knowledge that comes from that video. The very one that you’re talking about.
Years ago our firm represented a bunch of seamen, a group of seamen who were crew members of a jack-up rig, which is a pin rod 61 if I recall. It’s a much larger vessel that works the same way that these lift boat works, but it’s big, big, big, and it’s got a drill floor and all kinds of pipe racks, living quarters. It’s not self powered. It’s towed, but it jacks up on three legs. It’s called a Marathon Laturno rig. And in that hurricane, which was bad weather again, one of the legs of that vessel wasn’t preloaded and it had collapsed. And actually, this was back in I think the 70s, maybe early 80s, and it had actually slammed into another jack-up rig that was near it, and it was a huge catastrophe. But that was before cell phones and videos. And so it didn’t get nearly the attention it should have.
Tommy: Thank you. Skip. I appreciate your time and your insight. And we’ll talk to you again, I’m sure. This is Skip Lambert, founder of Lambert Zainey. Very insightful.
Skip Lambert on The Scoot Show with Scoot
Scoot: Right now I’ve got Skip Lambert on the air. And Skip Lambert is with Lambert Zainey. It’s a maritime law firm here in the New Orleans area. Skip, welcome to the show.
Skip: Thanks, Scoot. I’ve been listening to your show as usual and it’s insightful. And I think the part about what these families are going through right now, waiting to find out the fate of their loved ones, is something that is just incredible.
Scoot: Skip talk about the role of lift boats, and also please touch on whether or not it was appropriate for this lift boat to go out that day.
Skip: I’ll be happy to do both. First, lift boats are work vessels. They are used in relatively shallow water. They work at about 200 feet of water, to work over small platforms and wellheads in the Gulf to either refurbish them so that they can operate more efficiently, or if they’re beyond their productive life to plug in abandoned them. And the way they work is they have legs, this particular one has three legs. It’s a class 265. Seacor Power is the name of the vessel. And it’s got three legs, which are jacked up (meaning when the vessel’s floating underway), and has two Caterpillar engines. It’s a big boat, it’s 129 feet long. It’s legs are sticking way up in the air. If it can work in 200 plus or minus feet of water, obviously those legs are gonna stick up quite a bit further than that. And in that condition while it’s underway, it’s very unstable.
I heard you mentioned earlier, Scoot, that the three to five foot sea forecast was acceptable for operations. I respectfully suggest that when you’re on the edge of an operating limit like that, if it weren’t for the current conditions in the Gulf, where work is scarce, I doubt if the company would have chosen to dispatch its boat with that kind of a weather pattern. Particularly as unpredictable as you know our weather patterns are.
Scoot: Yeah, let me break in here just a moment. We’re just getting breaking news that a second body has been found, a second crew member has been found dead. So Skip, you know, I’m getting this information from the lift boat captain, and if the limit is five feet and you’ve got a chance of five feet being out there, I don’t know if I would’ve made the decision to pull the trigger and go out there. But you know, if they were obviously on the edge of the threshold, so maybe this is something that’s gonna come into play. I don’t know if this is really the time to talk about that, but this will be part of the investigation.
Skip: I’m certain of that Scoot, you’re right. And my point to you is, it’s not just the captain that’s making that decision. He’s getting pressure from management. I mean, I’m not saying Seacor is a bad company, not at all. I’m simply saying that the interested personnel that are starving for work will make decisions. And that captain, if he disagrees with a decision to dispatch the boat, despite the edge of the weather, he might not be the captain anymore. I mean, I’m here in Tampa right now in a mediation with another captain. And he, as well as other captains, all face from their employers pressure to do things that are not necessarily comfortable for them individually. And that’s today more than ever, because the communications on these vessels, it’s not like the old days where you couldn’t talk to anybody, and the only person that was going to make a decision was the captain. These vessels have all kinds of communication equipment on them. And so it’s the decision of the company that’s involved more than the individual who’s in command of the vessel.
Scoot: I would think that any company would realize the potential legal risk of going against what a captain says. And if you go against what a captain says, or if the captain doesn’t agree with you, when you fire the captain, that is a prime witness against you. There’s no way you’re going to win.
Skip: I agree with you. I agree with you a hundred percent, but it happens all the time. And the captain who gets fired, if he doesn’t do what the company wants him to do, has little or no recourse. And the video is something that’s so important right now and cell phones. That evidence, you’ve been talking about it on your show. And I think Tommy Tucker mentioned it on his show, as well, the fact that these events are now being disclosed to the public. The way the video was in this Seacor Power catastrophe makes it more of a problem for the dispatcher, for the owner, for the vessel owner, than it used to be. And I hope that what you’ve pointed out becomes the fact. Meaning, it is a bad decision and pushing someone to do something that’s questionable in terms of safety should be something that receives a whole lot of scrutiny.
Scoot: Well, what may be sad is that sometimes it takes an event like this to to bring people back to the reality that, you know, it’s not worth taking the chance. I mean, as greedy as we are as an American society, it’s just not worth the chance because of legal litigation. And really, I mean, there could be criminal charges here. We’re talking about people who are dead.
Skip: I understand, and you and I both remember the Macondo Well, BP. It wasn’t a spill, it was a disaster. And in the collapse of that vessel was a fire and the death of people. And as much as that litigation dragged on for a long time, and there were big dollars involved. When you go back and look at it, the older it gets, the more acceptable that bad conduct becomes. And hopefully, disclosing to the public as you do and your show does, as individuals who have video cameras and cell phones do, the less likely it is that that time of bad conduct can continue.
Scoot: Well, let’s hope this is a warning flare shot up into the virtual sky to discourage any business, any company from pushing the limits when it comes to human life.
Skip: I couldn’t agree with you more and well said.
Scoot: Skip Lambert with the Lambert law firm, maritime law firm here in the New Orleans area. Thank you for spending time with us. And thank you for explaining things the way you did.
Skip: You’re welcome, Scoot. Anytime.
For more than 40 years, the Louisiana maritime attorneys at Lambert Zainey have helped maritime workers protect their legal rights. If you were injured or a loved one was killed while working on a lift boat, contact us today to schedule a free consultation.