Coast Guard recovers body believed to be from capsized boat; 11 still missing

Published 3:49 pm Friday, April 16, 2021

The Coast Guard said Friday that it has found the body of a second dead worker from the lift boat that capsized off Louisiana’s coast earlier this week.

Rescuers in the air and the sea have been searching for the 19 workers who were aboard the vessel when it overturned Tuesday in rough weather about 8 miles (13 kilometers) from the Louisiana coast.

Six people were rescued shortly after the vessel capsized Tuesday, one other body was recovered from the water Wednesday and 11 are still missing. The second body was found in the water near the partially submerged Seacor Power lift boat Thursday night, according to the Coast Guard news release.

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Divers searching for survivors prepared to enter the vessel Friday, a rescue effort complicated by daunting technical challenges and continued bad weather. The hope is that the 11 missing people have found air pockets to survive inside the Seacor Power.

Steven Walcott, whose brother was on the capsized boat, told The Associated Press that the Coast Guard told family members about the second body during a briefing Friday.

“Right now, we’re hoping for a miracle,” Walcott said.

Petty Officer 3rd Class Carlos Galarza said early Friday that as long as weather permits, divers will try to get into the vessel. But Dawn Saddler, sister of Gregory Walcott, said families were told during the meeting that divers did not get onto the boat Friday morning because of rough weather.

“They were supposed to go this morning,” she said. “They’re trying to find the right way to go in.”

The large housing structure above the deck of the lift boat will likely pose significant challenges for divers, naval architect David Bourg said.

“Imagine if you take a four-story building with multiple rooms in it, turn it upside down and put it in the water and try to navigate it with a flashlight — that’s what you’re looking at here,” said Bourg, who is also an adjunct professor at the University of New Orleans’ School of Naval Architecture and Marine Engineering.

Two of the missing worker had been communicating with rescuers by two-way radio Tuesday after the ungainly platform ship flipped over in hurricane-force winds that day. They were spotted clinging to the overturned hull but returned to seek shelter inside after a third man fell into the water and was lost. There have not been any signs of life since then, officials said.

Time is of the essence because air pockets will eventually become depleted of oxygen, said Mauritius Bell, diving safety officer at the California Academy of Sciences.

“It would be somewhat analogous to breathing in and out of a paper bag,” he added. “At some point, it’s not survivable.”

On Thursday, searchers knocked on the ship’s hull without response.

Relatives of the missing gathered at a fire station at Port Fourchon, a sprawling base for much of the offshore oil and gas industry in the Gulf of Mexico. The port, busy with cranes, cargo and heavy equipment, is where workers from across Louisiana and beyond load up on a fleet of helicopters and ships that take them to the rigs for long stretches of work.

Marion Cuyler, who is engaged to crane operator Chaz Morales, wavered between optimism and fear after the relatives got closed-door briefings from Seacor executives and the Coast Guard.

“Hopefully, they are all in one room, and they can just rescue them all in one day,” she said.

The families expressed frustration during the briefing, and want answers to their questions about why the boat ventured out to sea despite warnings of an approaching storm, she said.

“I asked, ‘Who gave the orders’ and of course — silence,” she said. Cuyler said she’d told her husband-to-be that he shouldn’t be going out in such weather. “And he knew they shouldn’t have been going out.”

Walcott, who has also worked on lift boats, echoed that frustration about conditions. He said the boats are not designed for travel in rough weather.

The first Coast Guard ship arrived at the scene at 5:10 p.m, about 40 minutes after the initial distress signal, and spotted five men clinging to the hull, Galarza said.

A helicopter crew from the Bristow marine company lowered life vests and two-way VHF radios to them, he said. Two of the men dropped into the water and were picked up by the Coast Guard. About the same time, Good Samaritan vessels rescued four other people, he said.

The Coast Guard was able to talk to the three people still on the ship’s hull using the radios, but the sea was too rough to reach them. Later Tuesday night, the Coast Guard was notified that one person had fallen in the water and wasn’t seen again.

Shortly before 10 p.m., the two remaining people told the Coast Guard they were going back inside, and that was the last time the Coast Guard spoke with them, Galarza said.