Houston Pilots (USA) earn IMO’s award for exceptional bravery at sea: Clayton L. Diamond


Photo: gCaptain website

Pilots around the world are counted on twenty four hours a day, three hundred and sixty five days a year to use their skills, in-depth local knowledge and informed independent judgment to safely move all manner of ships through winding, narrow and crowded waterways, often in adverse weather conditions. This is what pilots do – make an extremely challenging and dangerous job look routine. The Houston Pilots are no different. They direct the navigation of ships on the Houston Ship Channel, one of the busiest waterways in the world, where massive product tankers and seemingly countless tugs and barges share the waters.

Sometimes, however, circumstances dictate that pilots must go far above and well beyond their normal course of duties when protecting the waterways for which they are licensed. Such circumstances occurred for two Houston Pilots – Captain Michael G. McGee and Captain Michael C. Phillips – shortly after midnight on September 6, 2016.  At the end of this night, these two pilots would find themselves burned and exhausted, but responsible for having saved lives, protected vulnerable waterfront facilities and prevented a massive marine pollution incident. Their actions would later earn the two veteran pilots the International Maritime Organization’s (IMO) 2017 Award for Exceptional Bravery at Sea, the IMO’s highest honour for bravery at sea. They are the first pilots to ever receive this prestigious international award.

Captain McGee and Captain Phillips were dispatched by the Houston Pilots that September evening to the M/T Aframax River, which was moored at Houston Fuel Oil Berth 3. Due to its size, this massive Panamanian flag tanker required two pilots. While the vessel was unloaded at the time, it was carrying more than 90,000 gallons of fuel. Captain McGee was conning the vessel and undocking it when the ship experienced a catastrophic engine failure that caused the vessel to race to full astern (reaching nearly sea speed). The resultant loss of control caused the ship to strike two mooring dolphins located just off of the end of ITC Berths 7/8. As a result of the contact with the mooring dolphins, a port fuel tank ruptured causing a spill of diesel fuel that quickly ignited and created a massive fire on and around the vessel.

houston fire

Photo: gCaptain website

The seasoned pilots maintained their stations in the wheelhouse, despite being surrounded by a towering wall of burning fuel. The flames reached 200-300 feet in height, rapidly engulfing both sides of the vessel and blanketing the bridge wings. The waters surrounding the ship were also on fire and the flames quickly spread across the channel, threatening other oil and chemical vessels, as well as nearby shore
side facilities.

Video of the massive inferno on and around the M/T Aframax River is available HERE:

Relying on his years of experience and expert seamanship and shiphandling skills, Captain McGee was able to manoeuvre the crippled vessel away from surrounding ships and heave to in the middle of the channel to prevent the flames from spreading to the numerous tank vessels moored on both sides of the channel, as well as the vulnerable petro-chemical facilities along the waterfront. Simultaneously, Captain Phillips handled communications with the US Coast Guard and coordinated firefighting efforts via VHF radio with the tugs and the numerous local fireboats that arrived on scene. In the midst of this chaotic scene, Captain Phillips had the wherewithal and calm presence to break out and charge a fire hose to fight and extinguish a fire raging on the port bridge wing.

The fire went on for more than an hour and a half as the pilots continued to maintain the ship’s position and direct the vessels fighting the blaze. Once the fire was extinguished, Captain McGee, using assist tugs, was able to bring the stricken tanker safely to a mooring facility designated by the US Coast Guard. At the end of the night, both pilots’ hair was singed and they suffered burns to their arms and faces.

In the end, and as a result of the courageous and skilled actions of these two pilots, no lives were lost, serious damage to pier structures and facilities was prevented, and a major marine pollution incident
was avoided.

When a full accounting of the details of Captain McGee’s and Captain Phillips’ heroic efforts became known, the American Pilots’ Association coordinated with the International Maritime Pilots’ Association to nominate Captain McGee and Captain Phillips for the IMO 2017 Award for Exceptional Bravery at Sea. The Award, which was decided by a Panel of Judges and endorsed by the IMO Council at its 118th session in London in July 2017,was presented during a ceremony held during the 30th session of the IMO Assembly in November 2017.

‘Captains McGee and Phillips exemplify the calibre of dedicated and highly skilled mariners that make up the Houston Pilots,’ said Captain Robert Shearon, Presiding Officer of the Houston Pilots. ‘We are very proud of them as well as of their achievements and contributions to pilotage in this country.’

Captain McGee has been a Houston Pilot for 18 years and Captain Phillips for 24 years. The Houston Pilots are a group of professional men and women who are licensed by the State of Texas to serve as compulsory marine pilots. The role and official responsibility of these professionals is to protect the safety of navigation and the marine environment in the waters for which they are licensed.

In addition to the IMO Award for Exceptional Bravery at Sea, Captain McGee and Captain Phillips have been honoured with two other significant awards. In February the two Houston Pilots were presented the US Coast Guard’s Meritorious Public Service Award for their bravery. The Meritorious Public Service Award is among the highest awards the US Coast Guard can bestow on a civilian and is given to recognize ‘unusual courage and specific individual accomplishments that provide unique benefits to the public.’

In March, Captains McGee and Phillips were also presented with Professional Mariner magazine’s 2017 Samuel Plimsoll Award for Outstanding Service. This award, which is presented annually, takes
its name from Samuel Plimsoll (1824-1898), a Member of Parliament in the UK who fought against unsafe maritime industry practices. In presenting the Plimsoll Award, the magazine’s selection committee stated, ‘It really was one of the finest examples of state pilots protecting the waterway and citizens at their own risk.’

Captain Jorge Viso, President of the American Pilots’ Association, said, ‘The actions and performance of Captain McGee and Captain Phillips during and after the marine casualty aboard the tanker Aframax River, not only showed tremendous skill, determination, bravery and character on their parts, but also reflected the best traditions of the piloting profession in this country.’

The annual Award for Exceptional Bravery at Sea was established by IMO to provide international recognition for those who, at the risk of losing their own life, perform acts of exceptional bravery, displaying outstanding courage in attempting to save life at sea or in attempting to prevent or mitigate damage to the marine environment.

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