SAN DIEGO — Six civilian shipyard workers were killed and six others injured, one of them critically, when a crane-operated steel basket carrying the men plunged nearly 30 feet onto the deck of a U.S. Navy ship early Friday morning.
The accident, the worst in the history of the National Steel & Shipbuilding Co., occurred just after midnight as workmen secured the combat support ship Sacramento, undergoing basic overhaul, to a pier after it had been moved from dry dock, according to Fred Hallett, the firm's vice president.
The 175-foot crane was transferring the basket holding the 12 men from a berthing barge next to the ship to the dock when the basket came loose and fell about 30 feet to an upper deck of the ship, Hallett said. After glancing off that deck, the basket careened down to the next deck, where it came to rest on top of at least one worker, according to eyewitnesses.
"It was a real mess with blood all around and guys sprawled everywhere--one of those sights you hope you never have to see," said rigger John Farinsky, who had chatted with the victims as they climbed into the basket. "I was talking to them one minute and then as I turned around I heard this loud crash. When I looked in the air, all I saw was the crane with the wires hanging down, and I knew what had happened."
One survivor, 37-year-old Ford Pulley, said he "felt a tug on the line" just before the basket dropped to the ship's deck.
"The next thing I knew, I was on the main deck of the Sacramento lying in a pool of blood," Pulley said in an interview from a hospital where he was treated for minor cuts and bruises. "There was no time to get scared or panic. It just happened so quickly.
"The real ironic thing about all this is that roughly 15 minutes before the accident, a sailor on the Sacramento asked me if I had ever seen one of the baskets fall. I told him, 'No, never.' That's really scary."
Noting that the crane's cable was intact after the accident, Hallett said that officials believe that either a failure of the crane's brake--which locks the basket to the crane's arm--or operator error was responsible for the basket being dropped.
Crane Operator Identified
Company officials identified the crane's operator as Hugh Humphrey, a 65-year-old Chula Vista resident who has worked for NASSCO for 13 years. Humphrey was involved in another fatal accident at the shipyard last year in which a piece of lumber struck a worker after being dropped from a crane, but was exonerated after it was determined that the wood had been improperly stacked, NASSCO officials said.
"These people were friends of ours, so that makes it especially upsetting," said Humphrey's wife, Elvera. "But I hate to see people try to make something out of this when they don't even know what happened yet. Things are bad enough already."
NASSCO, the Navy and the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration are investigating the accident. A preliminary determination of the cause of the accident is not expected until at least next week, Hallett said.
San Diego police investigators also visited the accident scene Friday, in conjunction with the San Diego County district attorney's new policy of reviewing industrial accidents for possible criminal charges--a break from the usual practice in which administrative fines and civil lawsuits were the only punishments for industrial deaths. The policy change stems from Dist. Atty. Edwin Miller's frustration over what he saw as understaffing at the now-defunct Cal/OSHA office resulting in inadequate accident investigations and insufficient protection for workers.
(Cal/OSHA was eliminated as an independent agency by Gov. George Deukmejian this week and its functions were turned over to the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration.)
"We're looking at it, but whether there will be a role for us to play is something we don't know yet," said Steve Casey, a spokesman for the district attorney's office.
Workers on Overtime
The crane operator and other workers had worked overtime--up to 18 hours in some cases--before the accident, according to union officials. Crane operator Humphrey had worked a 14-hour split shift, divided by a 4 1/2-hour break, before the accident, Hallett said.
But, discounting fatigue as a possible factor in the accident, both the union officials and Hallett emphasized that NASSCO employees commonly work extended hours while involved in ship-moving procedures such as that in which the Sacramento was being moved from a floating dry dock to the pier.
"We're not ready to draw any conclusions," said Peter Zschiesche, business representative for the International Assn. of Machinists. "This is a particularly risky job. We're just sad, overwhelmingly sad. . . . At this point, we don't want to say it's anybody's fault. No matter whose fault it was, people have died. That's what we're left with now."