ILWACO - The January 2006 death of Columbia River Bar Pilot Kevin Murray, who fell while disembarking a 600-foot-long log carrier, has resulted in a federal lawsuit against the pilot boat Chinook and the Singapore-flagged ship he plummeted from.
In a wrongful death suit filed in U.S. District Court in Portland, his widow alleges "unseaworthiness," workplace safety problems and negligence of the pilot boat and bulk carrier's crews. The suit also claims the Chinook, one of several vehicles ferrying pilots to and from jobs, "ran over Capt. Murray's body, causing him injury and impairing his ability to survive."
Lori Murray, of Maine, is suing for lost earnings, loss of affection, support and guidance and compensation for her husband's "pre-death pain and suffering," among other damages. Murray himself resided in Ilwaco before his death.
Meanwhile, pilot groups worldwide are taking a closer look at the procedures and equipment standards that govern pilot safety.
Winds gusted up to 40 mph and seas climbed to 20 feet the night Capt. Murray made his final trip, guiding the oceanbound Dry Beam across the Columbia River bar.
Just south of Buoy 2, he was climbing down the ship's ladder and had one foot on the Chinook's deck when the vessels veered apart, sending Murray sliding down the man ropes and into the Pacific Ocean. His body washed up on a Washington beach two days later.
The death marked the first Columbia River Bar Pilot fatality in more than 30 years, despite the inherent risks of steering ships across a shallow river bar that has claimed thousands of vessels and hundreds of lives since the early 19th century. The suit puts an even rarer blemish on the pilots' legal record.
"We've had quite a few injuries and previously one (pilot) death, but this is the first lawsuit, the first time we've ever been involved in litigation," said bar pilot Gary Lewin.
The state Board of Maritime Pilots finished an investigation of Murray's death last April, and the U.S. Coast Guard issued its own report a year later, relying on much of the same information and all of the same interviews.
A partial version of that report, obtained by The Daily Astorian through a Freedom of Information Act request, highlighted a variety of concerns, from "active human failures" and "execution errors" to "attention failures" and "mistiming errors."
Murray carried safety and survival gear but didn't use it, and it was unclear whether he knew how to inflate his lifejacket and activate his strobe light, or if he was simply too disoriented in the dark, 47-degree water to do so, the report said.
At 50 years old, Murray was licensed to master all vessels on any ocean, yet he had limited experience transferring to and from ships by boat, as bar pilots have increasingly used helicopters. Of 262 transits completed during Murray's two years as a pilot, almost 75 percent were by helicopter, according to his work records. Had he completed his climb from the Dry Beam, it would have been just his second time disembarking by boat in the two months preceding his death.
While Dry Beam and Chinook crew members contend Murray mistimed his descent - attempting to leap to the pilot boat before it was steadily lined up with the log carrier - his widow's lawsuit alleges bar pilots lacked a procedure to confirm the boat was ready for transit. It argues the Chinook "wasn't operated in a safe and proper manner" and that equipment problems hampered rescue efforts. The suit also accuses the Dry Beam's crew of failing "to properly light the pilot ladder" and deck below.
In contrast, the Dry Beam claims Murray instructed crew members to remove a cargo light from above the ladder, and it was his choice to disembark the ship in heavy weather.
"Capt. Murray's death was caused, in whole or in part, by his own failure to exercise reasonable care for his own safety," Dry Beam owner Douglas Line countered in a reply to the court filing.
And Saddle Mountain, the pilot-run company that owns the Chinook, denied that "it or the Chinook had an absolute duty under the general maritime law to provide Capt. Murray a seaworthy vessel." The company claimed any damages suffered by his widow were "caused or enhanced by Capt. Murray's own comparative fault."
However, according to information gathered by the Coast Guard, man-overboard procedures weren't adhered to after Murray fell, and the agency's search-and-rescue operation "was hindered at the outset by communication breakdowns."
And, according to interviews with the pilot boat operator and deckhand, they may have run Murray over.
Just minutes after Murray fell, the pair spotted him conscious in the water. One of them reported yelling, "Hold on, Kevin, we'll be right there."
"But before I could finish my sentence the distance between the Chinook and Capt. Murray closed quickly," the witness stated. "It appeared to me that Capt. Murray came into contact with the starboard bow or forward section of the Chinook. He then disappeared out of sight."
They had one more shot. Although the forward search lights didn't work, a crew member grabbed a handheld spotlight and again glimpsed Murray. But this time, roughly five to 10 minutes after he fell, Murray was floating facedown. The crew tried to scoop him up in a hydraulic bucket. And they managed to catch his legs on the basket - but the boat pitched again and Murray "disappeared under the port jet."
"After this attempt, we never saw Murray again," the witness recounted.
No action by Coast Guard
The Coast Guard cited no violations or offenses and made no referrals for enforcement action from its investigation.
On Jan. 9, 2006, Murray died of "saltwater drowning. Traumatic asphyxia (external chest compression) was a contributing factor," the USCG report said.
But Columbia River Bar Pilots weren't the only group to suffer an on-the-job loss that year. Starting with Murray, at least four pilots and one pilot-boat operator died between January 2006 and February 2007 in transfer-related accidents. In one case, less than a month after the Murray accident, a veteran Hawaii pilot died while disembarking a cruise ship. He was pitched into the water and reportedly hit by the waiting pilot boat.
Dismayed by the upswing in deaths, maritime groups worldwide are taking a closer look at pilot safety, particularly ladders and other equipment.
In Astoria, the Columbia River Bar Pilots added lights on the Chinook, installed additional radio stations and specified ways to signal when a pilot starts to descend too early, said Gary Lewin.
Until Murray's death, he said, bar pilots followed many procedures, but there was little documentation to back them up.
"Some of the things we've always done are more codified now," said Lewin. "We had never put all our procedures down in writing; now, we've written more of them out. We also have a much more aggressive educational program, and we do drills monthly."
The local changes could be signs of broader safety requirements to come.
In February, Capt. Mike Watson, president of the International Maritime Pilots Association, announced that requirements and standards for pilot ladders and transfer arrangements are under review.
"The shocking deaths of so many pilots in the line of duty during the past year ... provide ample evidence of the need to rededicate ourselves to protecting the safety of pilots," he said.
Lewin, a colleague of Murray's and also of the fallen Hawaii pilot, agreed.
"We're still traumatized by it and still mourning Kevin Murray's death," he said. "It's not an easy thing to deal with."