Simple, straight-forward jobs often become dangerous ones when safety procedures are overlooked or inadequate. In the case of the ore-carrier Hyundai Dangjin a second mate died after falling into the water from a rope ladder while the vessel was alongside at at Port Walcott, Western Australia.
It was 4.50am and the chief mate and surveyor were on the wharf checking the draught marks. Unable to see the midships draught mark the chief called the second mate by radio and told him to check the mark on the outboard, port side where a rope ladder had already been rigged. Mates are trained to read draught marks.
In preparation to climb down the rope ladder, the second mate, a large and heavy man, donned a life vest (non-inflatable flotation aid). The able seaman, AB, on duty offered to go down the ladder instead of the second mate. The second mate declined the AB’s offer
Just after 0455, the chief mate and draught surveyor returned from the wharf to the ship’s office. The chief mate then called the second mate and asked for the midships draught. The second mate did not reply.
At that time, the second mate was near the bottom of the ladder, about 7 m below the ship’s deck. He called out to the AB for help and said he was having difficulty. When the AB checked, he saw the second mate struggling to hold on to the ladder. As the AB looked around for a rope to throw down, the second mate fell into the water. The AB threw a nearby lifebuoy to the second mate and it landed a few metres away.
The second mate tried to swim to the lifebuoy, but was not able to reach it. The sea was rough (1.4 m sea on a 0.4 m swell) and the water temperature was about 22 °C.
At about 0458, the AB called the third mate on the radio and told him that the second mate had fallen into the water. The AB then climbed down the ladder and entered the water. At this time, the second mate was about 4 m from the ladder and drifting further away. The AB had difficulty breathing and swimming in the rough, cold seawater. He was unable to reach the second mate and returned to the ladder.
The third mate reported the man overboard to the chief mate, before hurrying to the rope ladder. When he arrived there, he saw the second mate about 20 m from the ladder. His arms were moving slowly and he was not getting any closer to the lifebuoy about 3 m away. The third mate then went aft to get a lifebuoy with a lifeline attached.
At about 0510, the chief mate informed the master that the second mate had fallen from the rope ladder. The master left his cabin and went to the ship’s office, where he ordered that the port accommodation ladder and pilot ladder be lowered to the water.
The AB was at the bottom of the rope ladder when an ordinary seaman (OS) arrived. The AB was already suffering from the effects of the cold water and was having trouble holding on to the ladder. The OS threw a rope to the AB and he tied it around his waist.
Meanwhile, the third mate returned with a lifebuoy with a lifeline and threw it towards the second mate. The lifebuoy landed close to him and he was able to get an arm through it. The third mate then started to pull him towards the ship’s side near the rope ladder.
The AB had remained at the bottom of the ladder, to assist the second mate when he was close enough. When the second mate was about 5 m from the ship’s side, crew at the scene saw that he was no longer holding onto the lifebuoy.
Raising the alarm
At about this time, the chief mate arrived on deck near the rope ladder. He saw the AB holding on to the bottom of the ladder, up to his waist in the water. The chief mate took the lifebuoy line from the third mate and instructed him to go to the bridge and raise the alarm.
At about 0512, the third mate rang the general alarm. He then announced over the ship’s public address system that there was a man in the water, and for the crew to go to their muster stations.
The AB could not assist the second mate who was drifting further away, so he climbed the ladder to the deck. He was suffering from the effects of the cold water and exhaustion and was escorted to the ship’s hospital by two other crewmembers.
As the second mate drifted further aft, the chief mate continued to call out to him and shine a torch in his face. He did not receive any response.
When the third mate returned to the main deck, the accommodation ladder had been lowered to the water level. He climbed down and was able to drag the second mate onto the ladder’s lower platform. He then commenced cardio pulmonary resuscitation (CPR) on the second mate while the accommodation ladder was being raised to deck level with both men on its lower platform.
By 0520, two members of the terminal’s emergency response team and the port’s emergency management officer had boarded Hyundai Dangjin. Shortly after, when the accommodation ladder was at deck level, they visually assessed the second mate and detected no signs of life.
The master was concerned due to the gap between the ship’s side and the accommodation ladder platform, and the second mate’s weight. In order to avoid a further incident, he instructed his crew to transfer the second mate to the deck using the stores crane and a suitable sling. The master then went to inform the ship’s managers of the accident.
At 0540, the AB, suffering from hypothermia symptoms, was taken ashore for assessment at a local hospital.
At about 0555, a St John Ambulance paramedic boarded the ship. By this time, the second mate had been moved to the deck, CPR was continued and the paramedic assessed him. At 0605, after finding no sign of life, the paramedic informed the master that the second mate had died.
The rope ladder had been rigged upsidedown. With their wrong side up, the folded aluminium ladder steps did not provide a flat surface to stand on comfortably. Further, the steps were not good handholds.
The sole precaution taken by the second mate while reading the draught marks was his life vest. No fall prevention measures were put in place or used. The life vest’s specifications could not be determined but similar types provide around 7 to 10 kg of buoyancy.
While the AB was standing by on deck, man overboard response measures, such as a lifebuoy with light and line near the ladder were not in place. Fortunately, his well-intentioned but impulsive descent of the ladder in an attempt to rescue the second mate did not result in another casualty.
Says the ATSB: “In many cases, little attention is paid to planning apparently straightforward tasks, such as using a rope ladder. This can lead to important factors and relevant considerations not being taken into account, including the experience and physical ability of persons undertaking the task.”