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Columbia River Pilot's Widow Initiates Legal Action in Oregon

Last year’s accidental death of Columbia River Bar pilot Kevin Murray has resulted in a federal lawsuit against the operators of a pilot boat CHINOOK and the ship from which the ill-fated pilot was attempting to disembark at the time of his death. Brought in United States District Court in December of last year, the suit alleges unseaworthiness, negligence, and also references Jones Act and Longshore Harbor Workers Act issues.

On January 9 2006, the 50-year old Murray had just finished piloting the log carrier M/V DRY BEAM across the Columbia River Bar in adverse weather conditions. As he disembarked the vessel, he fell into the water and attempts to rescue him were unsuccessful. His body was recovered days later. The federal lawsuit highlights a series of supposed mistakes that led to Murray’s death and the lawsuit specifically alleges, “During the CHINOOK’s attempts to rescue Captain Murray from the sea, CHINOOK ran over Captain Murray’s body, causing him injury and impairing his ability to survive.”

The 2006 Oregon tragedy was just one of five such events involving a US-based ship pilot occurring over a thirteen month period spanning from January 2006 to February 2007. In at least three of these cases, pilots fell while trying to board or disembark from large ocean-going vessels. In February of this year, a Chesapeake Federal Pilot fell as he attempted to board a US-flagged tanker. Before that, in January, a pilot drowned in rough waters when returning from piloting a Gibraltar-flagged research vessel. In October of last year, a Boston harbor pilot lost his life while attempting to board a vessel via rope ladder. He fell to his death on a steel barge, which was breasting alongside the vessel. Another veteran harbor pilot died in Hawaii, also in January of 2006, falling from a ladder after piloting a cruise ship out of the harbor.

Murray was an experienced mariner, with about thirty years of experience, primarily in the coastwise tanker trades. (Captain) Gregg Farmer of the Boston Pilots Association recently told MarEx that part of the problem can possibly be traced to the enforcement of IMO standards with regard to the use of proper equipment and the deployment of that equipment by the ships themselves. “Port State Control is the key. Pilot boarding ladders have to be in compliance and they have to be deployed correctly by the vessels,” he said.

Indeed, the issue of pilot safety is finally beginning to get a lot more attention and not just in America. According to the International Maritime Pilots’ Association (IMPA), “No fewer than 8 pilots and IMPA members died in various incidents” last year alone. Also, as reported in the January 2007 issue of the IMPA magazine, THE INTERNATIONAL PILOT, the IMO’s Marine Safety Committee has approved a proposal to begin a review of the IMO requirements and standards for pilot ladders and other aspects of pilot transfer arrangements.

In Connecticut, worries over pilot safety at the Bridgeport, CT anchorage have prompted local pilots to use a particular launch service. According to CT Pilot Commission meeting minutes, “Several pilots expressed concern over safety issues involving the Bridgeport-based launch provided to service vessels at the anchorage. Currently, the pilots use a competing launch service from New Haven at a substantial additional cost.” Pilot officials there are on record as saying that “the launch proposed for use at the anchorage is deficient in its MOB retrieval system, handrails, walkways, and means of egress. This issue remains unresolved and will be continued to the March (Connecticut Pilot Commission) agenda.”

Lori Murray’s attorney, Joseph S. Stacey, told MarEx on Tuesday that both parties named in the suit have posted bonds of $3.25 million each and that the DRY BEAM continues to trade in the area. The case could bring to the forefront the question of liability for countless other US-based state pilot organizations. According to Stacey, Saddle Mountain, Inc. is a contractor to, and provides pilot boat services to the Columbia River Bar Pilots. Stacey added, “The pilots are also shareholders in the company.” Stacey also told MarEx that the case would probably not come to trial for at least a year.