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Towboat captain in fatal barge explosion gets six months in prison

Oct 2, 2015 02:44 PM
A fire hose sprays water on the blaze that engulfed the tank barge EMC-423 after the fatal explosion in Chicago on the night of Jan. 19, 2005.

Photo courtesy Chicago Fire Department

A fire hose sprays water on the blaze that engulfed the tank barge EMC-423 after the fatal explosion in Chicago on the night of Jan. 19, 2005.

An Illinois towboat captain has been sentenced to six months in prison for a seaman’s manslaughter conviction in the death of his deck hand in an explosion in 2005.

Together with his family’s company, the captain is ordered to pay $6.74 million in restitution.

Dennis Michael Egan, 36, of Topeka, Ill., was sentenced in U.S. District Court on June 26. Egan was the captain of the towing vessel Lisa E when its barge loaded with slurry oil exploded on the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal on Jan. 19, 2005.

The blast resulted in the death of Alexander Oliva, 29, of Oak Lawn, Ill. At trial, prosecutors argued that Egan had instructed Oliva to use a propane torch to heat a cargo pump. At the same time, fumes were being vented from the fuel barge’s cargo hold. The torch ignited the fumes and the barge EMC-423 erupted in a fireball, killing Oliva. 

In June 2014, a federal court convicted Egan and his uncle’s business, Egan Marine Corp., of manslaughter involving misconduct or neglect of ship officers and three counts of negligent violation of the Clean Water Act. 

At sentencing, U.S. District Judge James Zagel ordered Egan and the company to pay a total of $1.4 million in restitution to Oliva’s family. Additionally, the two defendants must pay about $5.34 million in restitution to the U.S. Coast Guard’s National Pollution Funds Center.

Payments to the deceased family take precedence over the government pollution fund, according to the sentencing documents. The judge gave Egan the option of establishing a monthly payment plan that would deduct at least 10 percent of his net income. 

The explosion happened on a cold afternoon as darkness was falling over northern Illinois. Lisa E was pushing the petroleum barge from Exxon-Mobil’s Joliet Refinery to the Ameropan Oil Terminal near downtown Chicago. The tow had just transited the city’s Cicero Avenue Bridge when the barge exploded, flinging debris hundreds of feet, with some landing on the bridge. Days later, Oliva’s body was found in the canal.

The damaged remains of the barge. The captain of the towboat Lisa E has been sentenced to six months in prison as a result of the incident.

Photo courtesy Chicago Fire Department

At the criminal trial, expert witnesses testified to evidence that a standpipe vent was open, allowing petroleum fumes to escape. At the same time, the heating system and the discharge pump was being tended to, they said. Egan acknowledged to investigators that he had sent Oliva to work on the pump.

Clarified slurry oil hardens at cold temperature, and the cargo pump must be heated to be able to offload the oil at a terminal. Last year, the U.S. attorney argued that the use of the torch was against U.S. Coast Guard safety regulations and was “downright reckless.” Zagel agreed that it created a hazardous condition.

“Egan Marine and its employees negligently vented combustible vapors from the cargo hold of the barge to the deck of the vessel, causing an explosion hazard,” Zagel ruled after a 13-day trial. “Oliva was using a propane-fueled open flame from a handheld ‘rosebud torch’ to heat a cargo pump on the barge deck. ... The use of an open flame to heat the pump near the vented vapors caused the explosion and, ultimately, Oliva’s death, the destruction of the barge and the oil pollution of the canal.”

During sentencing, Zagel noted that Egan told the truth in admitting he sent Oliva to work on the pump.

Court documents show that Egan Marine already has paid at least $100,000 to the Oliva family. The Egans have sued ExxonMobil, claiming that the refinery loaded cargo that was more volatile than the boat crew had expected.

Dennis Egan could have faced a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison. Egan Marine, which could have received a maximum of five years probation, received a sentence of three years probation in addition to the restitution.

The court ordered Dennis Egan to surrender to the federal prison by Sept. 3.

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