Three killed by gas leak in ship's hold

Aug 15, 2008 12:00 AM

Three Port Everglades dockworkers were killed when one of the men entered a ship’s hold to investigate a gas leak and became unconscious, prompting the other two to try to rescue him.

The Coast Guard and other federal agencies are investigating whether the men were properly trained to handle hazardous material — in this case, a tank containing argon.

The fatalities happened in the early morning of May 20 aboard the general dry-cargo ship Madeleine. On the previous evening, a crew from Florida Transportation Services Inc. had loaded the container of argon — a colorless, odorless gas that displaces oxygen in confined spaces — inside the hull of the 330-foot ship.

At approximately 0300, members of Madeleine’s crew notified the ship’s port captain that they were feeling dizzy.

The port captain informed the dockworkers’ supervisor, Hayman Sooknanan, that they would need to unload the cargo and check for a possible leak, according to the Broward County Sheriff’s Office.

Sooknanan, 47, entered the ship’s hull to investigate the source of the leak. He lost consciousness. Co-worker James Cason, 43, chased after him, and then another colleague, Rene Robert Dutertre Jr., 25, followed. All three men died.

The port captain, who was working for one of the vessel’s charterers, could see the passed-out Sooknanan and called for an evacuation of the ship before Cason and Dutertre entered the confined space, the sheriff’s office said.

As the port captain “looked down from where he was standing into the hull of the ship, he noticed there was a body lying on the floor,” said Keyla Concepcion, a public information officer with the sheriff’s office.

“The (port) captain immediately ordered the evacuation of the ship,” Concepcion said. “(Cason) tied a shirt around his face and ran into the ship to help his friend. Moments later … Dutertre did the same. Witnesses on scene said they were able to see from the top deck of the ship (that) Dutertre tried to climb out of the hull, but collapsed onto the floor.”

Lt. j.g. Michelle Schopp, the Coast Guard’s senior investigating officer for Sector Miami, said the argon was being transported under the authority of U.S. Department of Transportation special permit DOT-SP 11186. As is required, the hazardous gas was stored in a vacuum-insulated tank, enclosed in a frame.

The Transportation Department’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration requires that such a container be properly labeled with the permit number. The tank must be tested regularly, and handlers must be trained in the precautions necessary to transport hazardous materials — and in proper accident response.

“There is training that is required for people who are going to handle this kind of cargo — shoreside and shipside,” Schopp said. “There is equipment that can be used for monitoring, but I can’t speak to whether or not it was used in this particular incident.”

Crews who undergo the proper training are instructed that, when a hazardous-gas leak is suspected in a confined space, they should flee from the area, according to the Transportation Department’s regulations. Only trained responders wearing hazmat suits with breathing apparatus and with access to the proper monitoring equipment should go near the suspected source.

Officials at the Fort Lauderdale-based Florida Transportation Service declined to comment on any aspect of the accident. The company did arrange for a memorial service for its three employees who lost their lives.

The Broward County Medical Examiner determined that they died from chemical asphyxia due to the displacement of oxygen by the argon. The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the Department of Transportation are investigating the deaths.

When county hazmat responders arrived at Madeleine, they confirmed the source of the leak and ordered a crane to remove the tank container from the hull. It was placed on a ventilated area of the dock to allow the argon to dissipate safely. Authorities then moved the container to a secure location. The cause of the leak was unknown.

The federal investigators were probing whether the container was properly stored in the unventilated hold and whether the vessel was equipped with gauges that monitor oxygen levels.

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