Pilot falls to his death while boarding a ship at entrance to Delaware Bay

Mar 28, 2007 12:00 AM
A pilot with more than 30 years experience was killed when he plunged into the Atlantic Ocean after falling from a ladder he had been climbing to board a coal ship.

Capt. Lynn Deibert, president of the Chesapeake & Interstate Pilots Association, was missing and presumed drowned after the accident Feb. 4 off Cape Henlopen, Del., the Coast Guard said.

Deibert, 52, had just transferred from the pilot boat Big Stone 5 to a ladder up the side of the coal carrier Energy Enterprise when he fell at 2300. The Coast Guard said seas were 6 feet with winds of 20 to 25 knots.

Deibert, of Virginia Beach, Va., paused briefly as he was ascending the wood-and-rope ladder, witnesses reported.

"He was about a third of the way to half way up — about 15 feet," said Coast Guard Chief Warrant Officer Steve Siler, the lead investigator. "He stopped maybe for about 30 seconds ... It was very cold that night. It could have been to catch his breath. He may have been tired."

It's unusual for a pilot to pause for that long on a ladder, Siler said. Witnesses said Deibert dropped off the ladder without warning.

"He just fell off," Siler said. "He let go, and he fell into the water on his back."

The Coast Guard sent a helicopter, three rescue boats and a cutter to search for Deibert. His body hadn't been found by mid-February, and the Coast Guard was still investigating the cause of the incident.

Siler said Deibert may have slipped on ice or experienced a medical emergency that caused him to lose his grip. Wind may have been a factor.

Deibert was wearing a blue floatation device, the Coast Guard said. The water temperature was an estimated 39° at the pilot embarkation area, two miles southeast of Cape Henlopen at the entrance to the Delaware Bay.

The two-man pilot boat crew and the Energy Enterprise crew witnessed Deibert's fall but couldn't locate him in the water. They tossed at least three ring buoys to mark the location in the current, said Francis Burn, vice president of the Chesapeake & Interstate Pilots.

"No one saw him after that," Burn said. "The belt from his float coat was in the propeller of the launch. Most people think he was hit by both boats and that propeller."

Burn himself was out that night on another vessel and can attest to the wind-related difficulties.

"It was a fierce night, but we do it all the time," Burn said. "It was very icy as well."

About 90 minutes after Deibert's plunge, another pilot boarded Energy Enterprise for its scheduled trip up the Delaware Bay to the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal, Siler said. That pilot didn't find any icing and had no problem climbing aboard, the investigator said.

"It doesn't appear there was anything wrong with the Jacob's ladder," Siler said.

Deibert had been president of the Chesapeake & Interstate Pilots, based in Virginia Beach, for about 10 years. With his death, the four-pilot association has been reduced to three members. The federal pilots, who operate in the Delaware and Chesapeake bays and the James River, guide only U.S.-flagged vessels.

Burn said Deibert and his colleagues had been aboard Energy Enterprise frequently. The 645-foot freighter is specially made to carry coal. The vessel itself is unusual because it is fueled by coal, Burn said.

The ship was en route to Baltimore from Providence, R.I. It regularly runs from Baltimore with a load of coal, down the Chesapeake Bay and up the East Coast to deliver its load to coal-fired power plants in New England. On its return trip to Baltimore, Energy Enterprise can use the Delaware Bay and the Chesapeake & Delaware Canal because the ship has a more shallow draft when unloaded.

Burn said the ship's ladder is typically kept in good condition. "It's never greasy, but it usually has coal dust on it," he said, adding that the Energy Enterprise crew "are very good at picking up pilots, because they do it a lot."

The Coast Guard said it inspected both the pilot boat and the collier. The 51-foot Big Stone 5 is operated by Delaware Bay Launch Service Inc., of Milford, Del.

Deibert was divorced and had two grown children. A memorial service was held Feb. 13 in Virginia Beach. His legacy lives on in the many apprentices he trained in navigation and ship handling.

"Lynn Deibert was the best pilot out there," Burn said. "He could do it all. He could dock ships. He was an all-around accomplished sailor."

Deibert's death was the fifth fatality among U.S. pilots or pilot-boat crewmen since January 2006.
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