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Captain: Chouest endangered crew by exposing vessel to pirates

Mar 5, 2015 02:02 PM
Capt. Wren Thomas, above, commanded the offshore supply vessel C-Retriever when it was taken by pirates in 2013 near the Nigerian coastline, right.

Courtesy Vujasinovic & Beckcom

Capt. Wren Thomas, above, commanded the offshore supply vessel C-Retriever when it was taken by pirates in 2013 near the Nigerian coastline, right.

A former captain for Edison Chouest Offshore (ECO) has sued the Louisiana company and Chevron USA after being kidnapped by pirates off the Nigeria coast and held hostage.

Capt. Wren Thomas, an Illinois native and former U.S. Marine, commanded ECO’s 222-foot offshore service vessel C-Retriever. A day before the Oct. 23, 2013, attack, Thomas was ordered over unsecured airwaves to deviate from his usual convoy route, according to a lawsuit filed in October 2014.

C-Retriever left its convoy under orders to head to the east of Nigeria’s offshore Agbami field, where Chevron is the major operator. Early the next morning, the ship was attacked. Since the vessel didn’t have a secured room, Thomas and most of his crew hid in the bulk tank room. Pirates cut their way into that room and shot at the crew with AK-47s.

Thomas and his chief engineer surrendered and were kidnapped, tortured and left malnourished for two and a half weeks in the swamps along Nigeria’s coast. The U.S. State Department and the Federal Bureau of Investigation responded to the incident. The two men were released after ECO or its representatives paid ransom, according to the lawsuit.

The civil suit was filed in Harris County, Texas, district court by attorney Brian Beckcom of Vujasinovic & Beckcom, a personal injury firm in Houston.

Pat Rossi illustration/Source: Vujasinovic & Beckcom

After working for ECO for seven years, Thomas is no longer employed with the company, Beckcom said in December. Thomas began commanding C-Retriever in July 2011. “Thomas is dealing with injuries and stress from being held hostage in the jungles of Nigeria for 18 days,” Beckcom said. The captain is seeking compensatory and punitive damages, along with interest dating to October 2013 on any sums awarded.

ECO debriefed Thomas after his return. But when asked about contacts by ECO and Chevron with Thomas since his release, Beckcom said they had not been significant. ECO President and Chief Executive Gary Chouest “has not phoned him,” the attorney said.

ECO didn’t respond to inquiries in December about the incident or the lawsuit. Chevron spokesman Morgan Crinklaw said, “We have no comment at this time.”

The suit states that ECO and Chevron failed to protect their employees in dangerous offshore Nigeria. “Other Chouest vessels have been attacked there in recent years,” Beckcom said. The incident may yield some positive results for the offshore oil industry, however. “We anticipate that Captain Thomas’ experience in the Gulf of Guinea and his suit will lead to increased safety and security in those waters,” Beckcom said.

The Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta, or MEND, claimed responsibility for the C-Retriever attack. MEND, along with the Africa Marine Commando group out of Cameroon, rob and make black-market fuel purchases from vessels traveling along West Africa’s coast.

Beckcom was uncertain whether the suit would go to trial. “I don’t know about that,” he said in December. “It’s hard to say right now.” He represented the crew of the U.S.-flagged Maersk Alabama after Somali pirates attacked it en route to Kenya in April 2009. That hijacking spawned the 2013 film “Captain Phillips,” starring Tom Hanks.

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