The ten members of the Pilot Board of Investigation and Recommendations Committee (PBIRC) sat intently with all eyes riveted on the witness stand as two Houston Pilots testified December 15 about their actions aboard the AFRAMAX RIVER. In the early morning hours of September 6, the tanker lost power after experiencing engine failure, struck two mooring dolphins, and ruptured a fuel tank before erupting into flames.
You could hear a pin drop inside the Port of Houston's cavernous conference room as the pilots spoke.
Captain Mike McGee, the conning pilot, described the horrific scene and hostile situation that he confronted from the wheelhouse. Surrounded by towering flames and engulfed in thick black smoke and searing heat, the veteran pilot managed to maneuver the stricken vessel away from surrounding ships and hove to in the middle of the Houston Ship Channel to prevent the flames from spreading to the numerous tank vessels moored nearby. Captain Mike Phillips told how he handled radio communications with the USCG and coordinated firefighting efforts with the tugs and fireboats.
One pilot discovered that his face and hair were singed. The other pilot broke out and charged a firehose and extinguished a fire on the port bridge wing. With disaster seemingly imminent, Phillips turned to McGee and warned, "We are going to die." The blaze would continue for more than one hour.
The PBIRC listened to nearly two hours of testimony before deliberating in executive session. Chairman Captain Marcus Woodring, Ret. USCG, reconvened the meeting and announced that the PBIRC members unanimously voted to absolve McGee and Phillips of any blame and responsibility. Furthermore, the PBIRC highly praised the heroic actions of both Houston Pilots and recommended that the USCG strongly consider bestowing its highest honors to them for saving lives and preventing a disaster.
"We are going to die."