Chas. fire chief ponders changes after boat crash

The Charleston Fire Department introduced its new firefighting boat at the Maritime Center in November.

Tyrone Walker

The Charleston fireman at the helm of the city’s $850,000 boat that crashed into a buoy last month is a lifetime boater with experience piloting tug vessels.

But something happened when the fireboat responded April 13 to a Navy shipwreck that might include human error, Charleston Fire Department Chief Karen Brack told City Council members Thursday.

“We work with humans,” Brack said. “Because they are humans in stressful conditions, sometimes their situational awareness is not what it should be.”

Brack addressed the incident in front of the council’s Public Safety Committee, but she issued few conclusions about it. A memo she plans to give Mayor Joe Riley on Monday might reveal whether mechanical malfunctions or human error were factors.

“The first thing that came to mind is: ‘No way. You just don’t run into a buoy,’ ” Councilman Aubry Alexander said. “Did they follow the policies and protocols?”

Brack said the department might adjust its operating procedures and boost nighttime training exercises. The chief said the 36-foot boat had been used in two other rescues this year in Charleston Harbor. One was at night.

She couldn’t give a damage estimate or say when the boat, which was christened in November, might be back in action because the department is still trying figure out who will assess it. The boat was built in Canada by a manufacturer approved by the National Fire Protection Association, she said. It’s possible that it will be shipped back there for the repairs.

The boat was dispatched after 10 p.m. to a harbor jetty where a 34-foot Navy vessel had crashed. Sailors were hurt.

Brack said the boat started slowly as its crew checked its equipment. It throttled up, but it never exceeded half its full speed, the chief said without explaining how fast that is.

Still to be determined, she added, is whether a firefighter was watching over the bow; the use of a spotter is the captain’s decision.

The department asked the Coast Guard to investigate, Brack said, partially because of its knowledge of procedures that might be helpful in avoiding similar situations.

John Tippett, deputy chief of operations, added that other local mariners might also gain something from the probe’s findings.

“If it wasn’t for us, it’s likely it could have been somebody else,” Tippett said. “We all have to learn from that.”

Reach Andrew Knapp at 937-5414.