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Ship officer distracted by cellphone doesn’t see huge vessel until too late, feds say

Ship officer distracted by cellphone doesn’t see huge vessel until too late, feds say
Mitchell Willetts June 8, 2023

A ship’s officer was distracted by his cellphone just before two large ships collided in the Gulf of Mexico, putting dozens of crew members in danger and causing more than $12 million in damage, federal investigators say.

The Bunun Queen, a nearly 600-foot cargo ship, crashed into the side of a smaller offshore supply vessel dubbed Thunder off the coast of Louisiana after 1 p.m. July 23, according to a report by the National Transportation Safety Board.

The impact punched a gash in the Thunder’s hull, which quickly began to flood and list in waters 1,400 feet deep, endangering the lives of the 18 people on board, according to the report.

But moments before crashing, the Thunder’s second officer was using his cellphone, investigators said.

As the sole crew member on the bridge at the time, he was supposed to be monitoring for potential threats — other ships or oil platforms — while the Thunder continued its course on autopilot, according to investigators. But a recording device on the ship captured him making a phone call and dictating text messages that were “personal in nature,” the report says.

The officer only became aware of the fast-approaching bulker when another crew member glanced outside a porthole and radioed a warning to the bridge, investigators said.

By then it was too late to avoid crashing, as the crew aboard the Bunun Queen had also been distracted with “non-navigational tasks,” the report said.

The officers on both vessels are to blame for the collision, the NTSB said.

The Thunder turned, but the Bunun Queen still struck. Lights flickered aboard the smaller vessel as it tipped to the right, and water crashed onto the main deck, the report said.

The Thunder sent out a distress signal, and nearby vessels responded and evacuated the crew, according to investigators.

Despite extensive damage, the Thunder stayed afloat but needed to be towed back to port. The total cost to repair was about $11.6 million, while the Bunun Queen got off easier at $680,000, the report said.