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Hawaii Touring Catamarans Fatal Incidents

Coast Guard says end goal to get to ‘root cause’

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Mar 04, 2008

HONOLULU — The U.S. Coast Guard is nearing completion of investigations into two separate fatal incidents involving broken masts aboard touring catamarans in Hawaiian waters.

One of the incidents claimed the life of a 48-year-old Illinois man who was struck by a downed mast aboard the 55-foot Kiele V about two miles off Kahana on March 25 last year. With winds blowing 20 to 30 mph and swells of about 6 feet, Hal W. Pulfer of Highland Park, Ill., was on a dinner and whale-watching cruise with his wife and three children — ages 7, 10 and 12 — when the incident occurred. Three other passengers were hospitalized.

The other broken mast incident occurred in December 2006 when 13-year-old Jordan Loser died aboard Na Hoku II off Waikiki. The teenager was pushed by a broken mast against the boat’s cabin. Two other passengers were sent to a hospital for treatment.

The disclosure that the Coast Guard’s investigation into the mishaps had neared completion came from Rear Adm. Sally Brice-O’Hara, commander of the Coast Guard’s 14th District, which includes Hawaii, Guam, American Samoa and the Far East, according to her spokesman, Lt. John Titchen.

Brice-O’Hara mentioned the status of the investigations recently during a meeting with maritime industry partners in Honolulu, Titchen said.

But he said he could not say when the investigations would be completed and made public. Titchen said he has fielded a number of inquiries about the status of the investigations and understands the increased amount of public interest as the anniversary of the Maui incident approaches.

“The Coast Guard grieves for the families,” he said. But “it’s important that people understand why the process takes so long.”

He explained that the Coast Guard is handling the probes carefully because the conclusions reached “may have broader impacts on (the cruise boat) industry.”

“We ask for everyone’s patience as we go through this process,” Titchen said. “The end goal of a Coast Guard investigation is to get to the root cause of what went wrong and (determine) how to prevent it from happening again.”

Titchen emphasized that the Coast Guard did not wait for the conclusion of the investigation to take action for the public’s safety.

From May through July, the Coast Guard conducted an additional safety compliance check on 59 commercial sailing vessels operating in Hawaiian waters, he said.

Titchen said Coast Guard officials wanted to make sure they didn’t find anything similar to what had been seen in the two fatal accidents. Among other things, officials checked the rigging of vessels and the stability and structural integrity of boats, and it looked at the licensing, training and qualifications of crew members, he said.

Of the 59 vessels checked statewide, 18 had “deficiencies” and 11 were temporarily taken out of service, Titchen said. Twenty-one of the 59 operate in Maui County waters, and of those, nine had deficiencies, he said, although “it looks like a lot of them were very minor.”

The breakdown of sailing vessels operating in other waters, according to Titchen, was 16 on Oahu, 12 on Kauai and 10 on the Big Island.

When asked for an example of problems found, Titchen said some of them involved corrosion and fractures near the mast or the structural integrity of the vessel. But he declined to say how those problems related to the investigations of the Kiele V and Na Hoku II accidents.

Titchen said that Coast Guard officials reinspected all the vessels in which problems were found to make sure they were corrected before the boats were returned to service.

“The Coast Guard was not comfortable to wait until the results of the investigation” to take action to prevent another accident, he said. “We are committed to boater safety.”

On Friday, Jim Coon, president of the Ocean Tourism Coalition, said he was pleased to hear that the Coast Guard was nearing the completion of its investigations and looked forward to reviewing its findings.

But he stressed that the Hawaii ocean tourism industry has an overall excellent safety record over the last 30 years, with the accidents in December 2006 and last March being tragic exceptions.

“I believe that those are the only two incidents of lives being lost when hundreds of thousands of people are going out on the water safely on these vessels,” Coon said.

He said people are statistically more at risk driving on highways than in going on sailboat trips.

“Highways are far more dangerous than professionally managed ocean voyage traveling,” Coon said.

Oceangoing tour boats are inspected annually by the Coast Guard and must meet rigorous safety and maintenance standards, he said. Among other safety measures, boat operators conduct safety briefings for passengers on every voyage.

“We’re a very, very safe industry,” he said. “We maintain our vessels very well. . . . We have redundancy in safety equipment.”

Boat operators also cooperate with the Coast Guard, Coon said.

“They help us, and we work together to provide the safest possible traveling experience for the public.”

Titchen said the Coast Guard was “very pleased” with the cooperation it received from commercial sailing operators.

Already, sailing vessels such as the catamarans involved in the accidents are required to have annual Coast Guard inspections, Titchen said. In addition, the vessels receive a more thorough “certificate of inspection” check every five years.

One recommendation that could result from the investigation of the Kiele V and Na Hoku II accidents might be for more detailed and comprehensive annual inspections.

Coast Guard says end goal to get to ‘root cause’
Jason Moore

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