NEW ORLEANS — A U.S. Coast Guard commander said a technical issue prevented it from relaying severe thunderstorm and marine warnings on the day last April when a Seacor Power lift boat capsized in the Gulf of Mexico, leaving 13 dead amid hurricane-force winds.
The oil industry work vessel left a south Louisiana port on April 13 and was bound for the same area of the Gulf of Mexico where a line of powerful thunderstorms was developing, said Cmdr. Vince Taylor of the Coast Guard Communication Command.
National Weather Service forecasters had issued severe thunderstorm and marine warnings as winds picked up. But the commander testified the Coast Guard never relayed those warnings because of a connectivity issue involving an Internet-based system that wasn't fixed until after the Seacor Power overturned, The Times Picayune/The New Orleans Advocate reported.
Monday's disclosure came as a Coast Guard hearing into the deadly capsizing of the Seacor Power entered its second week.
Taylor said the technical problem involving its Navtex system, which transmits alerts under the Global Maritime Distress and Safety System, was discovered at 10 a.m. that day — hours before the National Weather Service issued its first special marine warning.
Equipped with a Navtex receiver, the Seacor Power left Port Fourchon shortly after midday for a Talos Energy platform some 40 miles (65 kilometers) east of Venice, Louisiana. Taylor said connectivity to an unmanned Coast Guard transmission site in Belle Chasse was restored at 4:23 p.m. — 42 minutes after the capsize.
“We have these issues maybe once a year, and it’s very limited,” Taylor said. “It just happened to be this is the date that it happened.”
Taylor’s testimony appeared to shed light on a troubling question surrounding a tragedy that left 13 dead among the 19 crewmen and contractors who left port that day: Why a series of marine warnings never seemed to register with Capt. David Ledet or the rest of the crew before hurricane-force winds capsized the lift boat.
Ledet was among the dead.
The boat’s first mate, Bryan Mires, was in the wheelhouse with Ledet that day. He testified last week that the Seacor Power overturned during a last-ditch attempt to lower its massive legs to the sea floor. Mires said winds were clocking steadily at 79 mph (127 kph).
He testified he and Ledet had discussed oncoming thunderstorms, but he said the weather reports that morning showed seas of 2-4 feet (.6-1.2 meters) and 10-15 knot winds – well within the 175-foot (53-meter) lift boat’s capabilities.
Mires said that VHF radio would pick up any distress calls from vessels that had encountered the bad weather, or they’d get word on their Navtex. But none came over that day. He said when he looked at the system, “it said ‘cannot print,’” Mires said. “My thought was probably the paper’s a little low.”
That wasn’t the problem, the Coast Guard commander testified.
What mariners who relied on the Coast Guard’s system missed were a series of National Weather Service warnings that afternoon that were pointing in the Seacor Power’s direction.
Philip Grigsby, the lead NWS forecaster in the area that day, testified earlier Monday that the storm's path would have been clear to mariners who picked up on those warnings.
“If anyone had appropriate situational awareness, I would say they should have been aware of the thunderstorms approaching,” he said.
Grigsby described a one-two punch of violent weather.
First came the thunderstorm, he said, then an unusually potent “wake low” — a compact, circular low-pressure system that shows up in the region a few times a year. He said it packed winds of 50 mph (80 kph) and lasted into the following morning, stirring the seas higher and obstructing rescue efforts.
“This wake low we had on April 13 was very unusual. It was much stronger and much longer lasting than we typically see,” Grigsby said. “We had strong 30, 40, 50-knot winds that persisted across the area from basically 3 p.m. until 3 in the morning. It was almost a 12-hour event.”
The weather service sent out a first marine warning at 12:08 p.m., about 10 minutes before the Seacor Power left port, but that was for an isolated storm. The line of thunderstorms that would capsize the oil services vessel followed, Grigsby said.
A 1:30 p.m. special marine warning focused on Lake Pontchartrain, near New Orleans.
From there the warnings followed the storm. By 2:30 p.m., the weather service issued a marine warning for the coastal waters around Port Fourchon describing wind gusts exceeding 39 mph (62 kph) and hail, while cautioning that boats could “sustain damage or capsize.”
At 2:57 p.m., another alert broadened the warning area.
“This is when things really started to develop, and the line really became well defined,” Grigsby testified.
Those warnings didn’t capture the storm's full force until after the lift boat overturned, Grigsby acknowledged. Either way, it appears they went unheard.