NAVAL / MERCHANT MARINE/PUBLIC INTEREST
BLOOD ON BROWN WATER CH.2 part 2
On December 4, 2000, Rita Billiot called to tell us that her brother in law Antoine Collins Verret, master of the anchor-handling tug M/V MOHAWK EAGLE owned at the time by Double Eagle Marine, was found unconscious in his cabin after suffering a stroke on the vessel while returning to an anchor -handling job for the pipe-laying barge MIDNIGHT BRAVE 60 miles offshore in the Gulf of Mexico. She reported that Collins was evacuated by helicopter to Lake Charles Memorial Hospital. The company called Rita's sister Catherine, Collin's wife, at about 6:00 a.m. and told her that her husband was "rather sick". She would later learn that this understatement clouded the reality that Collins was close to death.
A company representative, in trying to minimize the seriousness of the illness, provided additional details to Rita over the phone indicating that Collins' condition was extremely grave. Somehow, Rita in a near panic, managed to drive her sister, Catherine, at speeds approaching 80 mph, more than 150 miles to Lake Charles, Louisiana, where Collins now lay in intensive care partially paralyzed, incoherent, and just barely conscious.
After several days as his condition stabilized, Collins was transferred to Terrebonne General Medical Center several miles from his home in Houma, LA, where he would spend several weeks in the rehabilitation unit. It was at this point where friends , family, and eventually our Association's (NMA) officers first viewed the devastation caused by the stroke that left him paralyzed on his left side. He is wheelchair-bound, unable to walk without direct supervision, and cannot write or use his left hand Much water has passed under the bridge in the years after his stroke. Collins Verret's story should provide food for thought for any mariner who chooses or is forced to do the work of two men, work excessive hours often under harrowing conditions and to the point of exhaustion on the job.
According to testimony taken under oath, Collins was an exemplary mariner. During his 45 years of service in the marine industry, he had a clear Coast Guard record, a clean driving record, had never been involved in a serious accident. He was well liked by his company personnel manager who considered him a "friend" and was respected by both his crew as well as the customer he was working for. One crew member went so far as to say that both of the barge captains on the MIDNIGHT BRAVE "loved'him.
It was clear that when Barge Captain Nini heard of Collins stroke he moved heaven and earth to get an evacuation helicopter into the air and en route to the scene - with no delay and without any inane questions as to who would pay the bill. Collins is friendly and soft -spoken and dedicated to perforning whatever job he is given to the very best of his ability... as he proved by sacrificing his health in this case that should provide several very important lessons to our mariners. One of those lessons involves the stress and fatigue that working on commercial and largely unregulated towing vessels can cause (1)[ Refer to NMA Report # R-403].
In the mid-1990s, Captain John R. Sutton , President of the American Inland Mariners Asociation (AIM), made inquiries of many knowledgeable masters and river towboat pilots, searched obituaries of friends and other mariners who passed away and found that their average lifespan was only slightly over 57 years. His study was as through as possible under the circumstances although admittedly not "scientific".
For "science" in Captain Verret's case, we rely on the sworn testimony of Dr. John Stirling Meyer, a researcher on stroke at the Veterans administration Medical Center and Professor at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, TX. Dr. Meyer presented an expert opinion that stated in part: The fatigue, sleep deprivation, and stress experienced by Captain Verret, more probably than not, aggravated or contributed to his stroke. This testimony given in a 115 page deposition is so convincing that we forwarded a copy to the National Transportation Safety Board to consider as supporting evidence in their ongoing "scientific hours of work" project. (NTSB Recommendation M-99-1)
Captain Verret was 59 years of age at the time of the stroke that left him permanently and completely disabled. "Disabled" has meant that Collins spent the next twelve years in a wheelchair dependent upon his wife, Catherine, and other members of his immediate family as caregivers. His future is bleak.
Our association hears of many mariners who worked on boats all of their lives with the intention of retiring from the industry someday-as Captain Verret planned to do in several years. Regrettably , many mariners develop health problems that force them out of the industry before they can reach an age covered by Social Security and / or Medicare. This is a result of the aging process accompanied by stressors unique to this industry including:
- unreasonably harsh working conditions that become unrelenting when applied to older mariners;
- long term vessel undermanning
- working with untrained crewmembers including "green deckhands prone to accidents, and inexperienced Mates not capable of standing their watch alone;
- working excessively long hours to make up for shortcomings of other crewmembers;
- running the boat in the stress of rough weather,during hours of darkness and in fog with limited visibility;
- enduring years of poor diets;
- drinking unsanitary and impure drinking water from rusty and decaying water tanks;
- frequent interruptions of sleep by noise, vibration, and vessel motion;
- years of smoking or being forced to live with exposure to second -hand tobacco smoke in close quarters.
- high accident rates caused by dangerous and largely unregulated working conditions on towing vessels that still do not undergo Coast Guard inspections (refer to NMA Report # R-276,Rev.10).
These conditions help explain why the "average" life span of a towing vessel officer may be shortened by years.