Human error cited in fire boat incident

The incident where Charleston’s fire boat hit a harbor buoy while racing to an accident scene was “a classic case of human error,” officials agreed in an analysis of the April 13 collision released Friday.

Minimal crew experience, unsafe speed, no lookout, fatigue and lack of proficiency with equipment were all cited by the Coast Guard as part of its review of the department’s response that night.

In a letter to Fire Chief Karen Brack, Deputy Chief John Tippett said he agreed with the Coast Guard’s findings.

“The casual factors confirm that the allision (nautical strike) was a classic case of human error,” he wrote.

Tippet went on to say that since this was a “classic case,” there is ample documentation to support the collision between the fireboat Louis Behrens and harbor Buoy 25 “was the end result of a long chain of events, not just the actions of a single individual that evening.”

During a press conference Friday, Brack said some corrective measures have already been taken, including in terms of training, with more to come. She called the response by the boat’s four-member crew that night “a lapse of situational awareness.”

The accident occurred after a 34-foot Navy patrol boat on a training mission from Jacksonville, Fla., ran aground in the dark on the south harbor jetty. It later sank. Six people were injured.

The Charleston boat’s hull suffered a gash while the crew was racing to the scene, but the boat made it back to its docking station.

A preliminary damage estimate put the repair costs on the $850,000 boat at about $53,000. It is currently at Pierside Boatworks in North Charleston. Insurance will cover the fixes, Brack said.

Because the 39-foot boat was built in Canada, the replacement panels will have to come from Canada, meaning it will be many more weeks before the vessel can go back into service.

Brack said her investigation into the crew’s actions that night is still underway and that it will be later before she determines what corrective or disciplinary action is warranted for the captain and crew.

Earlier descriptions of the accident scene that night indicate a crew member noticed the boat was close to the buoys, but said nothing. It was also the first time the skipper had taken the vessel out at night. The crew had come from a Savannah Highway fire station to respond.

Other findings in the report said one of the navigational displays failed and had to be rebooted by the first mate while underway, and that the crew had limited experience working with one another. The department’s Marine Team has 42 fire-fighters.

Earlier this week the Navy announced it had relieved an executive officer of his duties as a result of the jetty strike, and after another Navy boat was hung up the next night while guarding the site.

Officials cited a loss of confidence and substandard performance involving a significant event as the reasoning behind Capt. Adrian Garcia’s dismissal.

Reach Schuyler Kropf at 937-5551.

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