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Can tugboat death be guide to safety?

Maritime workers' unions raise questions in wake of an accident.

June 18, 2007|Ronald D. White | Times Staff Writer

On the last morning of her life, 26-year-old Piper Inness Cameron was doing exactly what she had always wanted to do.

She was working on the deck of a tugboat and counting the days until she, like her father, would be piloting one. There were 41 to go.

Then, at 11 a.m. Feb. 20 while moving through Santa Monica Bay about two miles off Marina del Rey, something went wrong. A line linking the tug and the barge it was towing suddenly struck Cameron and slammed her into a railing. She died before reaching a hospital.

The accident almost four months ago was a wake-up call for the unions representing more than 15,000 West Coast maritime industry workers. The swell in global trade and the technological advances that have made shipping more efficient than ever before have compounded the hazards of maritime jobs, and labor leaders are calling for new safety studies and standards.

"We can't let her death go in vain," said Alan Cote, national president of the Inlandboatmen's Union.

The career Cameron settled on when she was in elementary school has always been risky, the work much the same as it was when the first tugboats, steam-powered paddle-wheelers, worked a canal in Scotland more than 200 years ago. Tugboats still fight the elements to muscle freighters, tankers and barges to and from port. Pilots who steer oceangoing vessels in local waters still climb to their jobs on a Jacob's ladder fashioned from hemp and oak or ash.

But there have been fundamental changes. Container ships grow larger and heavier every year, forcing harbor pilots to spend a lot more time on the rope ladders, sometimes as the vessels pitch and roll in high winds and heavy swells. Containers are stacked and lashed down in rows that are wider and longer, and the tugs and winches that move the ships are built to exert much greater force. Kevlar towlines are strong but so light that they whip easily, making them harder to avoid.

"When something goes wrong, it goes really wrong," said Charles Naylor, a San Pedro lawyer who represents injured maritime workers. "Because everything you're dealing with is so heavy, so hard and so huge, the injuries tend to be devastating."

The Inlandboatmen's Union and a safety committee of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union are pressing shipping lines for better efforts to stay ahead of the curve in determining whether new equipment or new procedures create dangers that should require a change in work habits.

Right now, the unions are asking questions such as: Should deckhands be allowed to go anywhere near the super-powerful winches that maintain the tension on tow lines?

"We have a saying, 'Don't stand in the bite,' " Cote said, referring to a position between a line that's in use and any hard object a crew member could become trapped against. "Maybe there are situations now when it just isn't safe to have a crewman on the deck."

Every piece of equipment used in the moving and handling of cargo -- from ships, cranes and vehicles to the tugs and the winches and towlines used on them -- is bigger, stronger or more powerful than it was a few years ago.

"As trade increases, the hazards increase as well," said Ronald Signorino, a lobbyist for the maritime industry on state and federal regulatory matters. "The more activity you pack into a place, the more difficult it becomes."

Signorino said in some cases the industry has had to accept, for better or worse, that "there is no better mousetrap." Climbing a Jacob's ladder, for instance, remains to this day the most efficient way for a captain to move from a boat to a ship out at sea.

Still, Signorino said, "we have to be increasingly vigilant."

If anyone was aware of the dangers, it was Cameron, who worked for Foss Maritime, a 118-year-old Seattle-based company. She took her career on almost like an inheritance.

"I got it from my father and she got it from me," said her father, Curt Cameron, a former tug pilot and Santa Catalina Island native whose own father captained a glass-bottomed excursion boat for tourists to Avalon.

"She knew what the risks were. Every time she went out, I'd tell her to be careful. 'Dad, I'm always careful,' she would say. I'd tell her to be careful anyway. Now, I'd just like to make sure that this never happens to anyone else."

In December 2005, Cameron was given the honor of being the only deckhand onboard the new tugboat named Campbell Foss on its maiden voyage from Rainier, Ore., to Los Angeles. It is one of a new generation of small, highly maneuverable and powerful vessels.

The voyage was delayed for a week by massive swells at the Columbia River Bar, a dangerous crossing where North America's fourth-largest river surges into the Pacific, creating huge ocean swells and confusing currents. Local legend has it that 2,000 vessels have sunk there since 1792. The area is also treacherous because of the sandbar made up of sediment deposited by the river.

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