Crash prompts look at training

ANDREW KNAPP/STAFF -- May 6, 2013 -- Charleston Fire Department Chief Karen Brack looks at the damage to the city's fire boat Monday after addressing reporters about a crash last month that put it out of service.

On its way to a shipwreck last month, Charleston’s fireboat skirted along the buoys marking a channel in the harbor.

A crew member noticed that the 36-foot boat was close to the buoys, but he said nothing. It was dark, and it was the first time the skipper had ever taken the vessel out at night.

He also had little familiarity with the navigation instruments glowing in front of him. He planned to follow the course, then cut between green buoy No. 25 and Fort Sumter to save time in the journey to where five Navy sailors were hurt.

Instead, the $850,000 fireboat hit buoy No. 25, which dented its bow, punctured its hull and possibly damaged its structure.

The Coast Guard’s preliminary investigation cited those factors among about a dozen circumstances leading to the April 13 crash. The Post and Courier obtained documents listing the findings Monday after it filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the city.

The accident revealed shortcomings in the Charleston Fire Department’s training and operating procedures, fire and military officials told reporters Monday. But Fire Chief Karen Brack said it would be too “premature” to discuss specifics.

That the incident occurred, the officials said, drove them to discuss a regional training and evaluation program that could serve as a model for other waterborne firefighters nationwide.

“The only good outcome of this accident is that we didn’t have anybody hurt,” Brack said. “But other than that, it gives us an opportunity to correct.”

Brack stood with Coast Guard Capt. Mike White in front of a Concord Street dry dock that contained the crippled craft. How extensively it was damaged still isn’t known, she said. It was insured.

When asked, the officials declined to provide some of the answers contained in memos, emails and training records related to the crash.

In the two decades before joining the Fire Department, John Brian Koster worked for companies that built docks and seawalls. He served as a deckhand on tugboats. In 2000, he was licensed to operate 100-ton boats and later captained tugboats in local dredging projects.

At some point, he let one of his licenses expire to pursue another career: firefighting. But he maintained the Coast Guard certification allowing him to later operate the city’s fire boat.

The city hired Koster in 2005. Supervisors gave him high performance marks, but they pointed out frequent absenteeism.

He completed 41 hours of marine training with the department — a mix of “swim training” and “sea time,” according to his records. But on March 11, he missed a class on basic seamanship, which teaches skills for navigating and operating a boat.

Less than a month later, Koster’s engine company from West Ashley was summoned to the Navy crash site after 10 p.m.

Koster, who had served on the boat with only one of the four others aboard, didn’t designate anyone to be a lookout — a decision that department policy leaves up to him.

In the next 20 minutes, they learned that three sailors had spinal injuries. They started devising a rescue plan and gathering equipment.

But during the journey, glare from electronics screens made it difficult for the crew to see out of the cabin. On a radar screen, Koster found buoy No. 25, but he couldn’t see whether it was flashing.

As a “self-imposed” lookout, a firefighter saw that the boat was close to the edge of the harbor’s south channel, but he didn’t speak up until it was too late.

“Buoy!” someone yelled. Other firefighters looked up as they felt the jolt.

White, the Coast Guard captain, later told a fire official in an email that investigators’ early report was “not great news.” But it might be another six months before it’s finalized.

“The other side of the coin,” White wrote, “is that this is all fixable with training.”

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