Watchdogs: The Coast Guard's Accidents Investigations, or Lack Thereof
"Washington Watchdogs," a periodic feature of the Post's Investigations blog, looks at the findings of the federal government's official investigators.
The U.S. Coast Guard didn't fully investigate hundreds of sea accidents and deaths because of inexperienced marine investigators, says an inspector general's report from the Department of Homeland Security.
The IG's investigators said they found 134 marine casualties that the Coast Guard failed to properly handle between Jan. 1, 2003 and Oct. 31, 2006.
The 51-page report has drawn the ire of Coast Guard officials who insist several of the accidents, and their possible causes, were investigated thoroughly.
U.S. Coast Guard Rear Adm. James Watson said 79 of those 134 cases were investigated at the right level and that investigators simply didn't update the Coast Guard's database correctly.
"The investigators just looked at the database without reading the actual reports," said Watson, who is director of the Coast Guard's Prevention Policy for Marine Safety, Security and Stewardship. "We don't agree with the conclusions."
Despite the disagreement, Coast Guard officials said they agreed with the report's recommendations, including the improved training of Coast Guard investigators.
"Our review of the remaining cases investigated at the data collection level shows that the level of investigation was generally proper for the casualty circumstances, with eight cases downgraded without an identifiable reason," Watson said during testimony earlier this month before the House Subcommittee on Border, Maritime and Global Counterterrorism. "While we have concurred with the DHS OIG's recommendations in this area and will strive for constant improvement, we do not agree that the picture is as bleak as painted by the DHS OIG."
One notable example outlined in the report was the case of the shipping vessel Atlanta, which was returning to a New Bedford, Mass., port in December 2003 with about 9,000 pounds of scallop meat packed on board.
The load was much too heavy for the 65-foot boat and as a dredge full of scallops was brought close to the deck, the boat began to tilt.
The vessel's captain, 33-year-old Francisco J. Pereira, panicked, crewmates said. He mistakenly grabbed the wrong lever to pull the dredge aboard, causing the titling boat to tilt even more and take on water. Then the boat rolled.
At about 9:45 p.m. Dec. 13, 2003, the Atlanta sunk about 25 miles south of Chatham, Mass., with seven crewmen on board.
The bodies of Pereira and 45-year-old Kenneth D. Toolis, who had been sleeping below deck, were soon found floating in the frigid waters. Another man who fell in the water and went missing, 36-year-old Stephen M. Viator, was presumed dead. Four other men survived.
A report, obtained by "Washington Watchdogs" as part of a Freedom of Information Act request, indicated a number of potential causes for the Atlanta's sinking:
-- Two "dime bags" of marijuana were found in sweat pants that Pereira, the captain, was wearing and other crew members refused to take drug tests after the accident. Investigators believe drug use may have played a part in the Pereira's handling of the boat.
-- The large pile of scallops and debris on the boat's deck measured seven to 10 feet high, crew members said, and the boat had existing stability concerns.
-- Most of the ship's crew were relatively new to the Atlanta and Pereira was said to have lacked the "necessary experience" to operate the boat. Survival suits were also hard to locate on the boat and all of the surviving crew said they had no fire or life-saving training aboard the Atlanta.
But despite the seriousness of the accident, the investigative report on the Atlanta wreck was filed as a "data collection" level incident, which does not require investigators to determine what caused the accident. As a result, the Coast Guard issued no actions or safety alerts.
Watson said the investigative report on the Atlanta accident, which totals more than 200 pages, is exhaustive and contains several possible scenarios for what happened, which is in line with informal review policies.
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