Six civilian shipyard workers were killed and six others injured, one of them critically, when a crane-operated steel basket carrying the men plunged nearly 30 feet onto the deck of a U.S. Navy ship early Friday morning.
The accident, the worst in the history of the National Steel & Shipbuilding Co., occurred just after midnight as workmen secured the combat support ship Sacramento, undergoing basic overhaul, to a pier after it had been moved from dry dock, according to Fred Hallett, the firm's vice president.
The 175-foot crane was transferring the basket holding the 12 men from a berthing barge next to the ship to the dock when the basket came loose and fell about 30 feet to an upper deck of the ship, Hallett said. After glancing off that deck, the basket careened down to the next deck, where it came to rest on top of at least one worker, according to eyewitnesses.
"It was a real mess with blood all around and guys sprawled everywhere--one of those sights you hope you never have to see," said rigger John Farinsky, who had chatted with the victims as they climbed into the basket. "I was talking to them one minute and then as I turned around I heard this loud crash. When I looked in the air, all I saw was the crane with the wires hanging down, and I knew what had happened."
One survivor, 37-year-old Ford Pulley, said he "felt a tug on the line" just before the basket dropped to the ship's deck.
"The next thing I knew, I was on the main deck of the Sacramento lying in a pool of blood," Pulley said in an interview from a hospital where he was treated for minor cuts and bruises. "There was no time to get scared or panic. It just happened so quickly.
"The real ironic thing about all this is that roughly 15 minutes before the accident, a sailor on the Sacramento asked me if I had ever seen one of the baskets fall. I told him, 'No, never.' That's really scary."
Noting that the crane's cable was intact after the accident, Hallett said that officials believe that either a failure of the crane's brake--which locks the basket to the crane's arm--or operator error was responsible for the basket being dropped.
Crane Operator Identified
Company officials identified the crane's operator as Hugh Humphrey, a 65-year-old Chula Vista resident who has worked for NASSCO for 13 years. Humphrey was involved in another fatal accident at the shipyard last year in which a piece of lumber struck a worker after being dropped from a crane, but was exonerated after it was determined that the wood had been improperly stacked, NASSCO officials said.
"These people were friends of ours, so that makes it especially upsetting," said Humphrey's wife, Elvera. "But I hate to see people try to make something out of this when they don't even know what happened yet. Things are bad enough already."
NASSCO, the Navy and the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration are investigating the accident. A preliminary determination of the cause of the accident is not expected until at least next week, Hallett said.
San Diego police investigators also visited the accident scene Friday, in conjunction with the San Diego County district attorney's new policy of reviewing industrial accidents for possible criminal charges--a break from the usual practice in which administrative fines and civil lawsuits were the only punishments for industrial deaths. The policy change stems from Dist. Atty. Edwin Miller's frustration over what he saw as understaffing at the now-defunct Cal/OSHA office resulting in inadequate accident investigations and insufficient protection for workers.
(Cal/OSHA was eliminated as an independent agency by Gov. George Deukmejian this week and its functions were turned over to the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration.)
"We're looking at it, but whether there will be a role for us to play is something we don't know yet," said Steve Casey, a spokesman for the district attorney's office.
Workers on Overtime
The crane operator and other workers had worked overtime--up to 18 hours in some cases--before the accident, according to union officials. Crane operator Humphrey had worked a 14-hour split shift, divided by a 4 1/2-hour break, before the accident, Hallett said.
But, discounting fatigue as a possible factor in the accident, both the union officials and Hallett emphasized that NASSCO employees commonly work extended hours while involved in ship-moving procedures such as that in which the Sacramento was being moved from a floating dry dock to the pier.
"We're not ready to draw any conclusions," said Peter Zschiesche, business representative for the International Assn. of Machinists. "This is a particularly risky job. We're just sad, overwhelmingly sad. . . . At this point, we don't want to say it's anybody's fault. No matter whose fault it was, people have died. That's what we're left with now."
The so-called "personnel basket" involved in the accident is about 7-by-10 feet in size, with 3-foot-high sides, Hallett said. The basket has a capacity of about 15 people, "so 12 was a very normal load," he added. The crane itself is capable of lifting up to 50 tons, the NASSCO executive said.
Dropped From Crane
After the 12 men entered the basket, the crane operator lifted it from the barge and had begun to swing it about 100 feet over the Sacramento to the pier, Hallett explained. However, when the basket was roughly halfway over the ship, it dropped from the crane to the ship's deck.
Navy personnel immediately began administering first aid to the victims. "If it hadn't been for that, I think a couple more might be dead," Farinsky said.
Four men were declared dead at the scene, and two more died later at a local hospital, according to a spokesman for the San Diego County coroner's office. One of the six injured men was listed in critical condition late Friday. Injuries to the five others are not considered life-threatening, Hallett said. One of the five, Carge Johnson Jr., was originally listed in critical condition.
The four men who died at the scene were identified by the coroner's office as Maurice McClure Jr., 37, of San Diego; Carlos Ortiz, 40, of Chula Vista; William Starke, 51, of Santee, and August Unser, 39, of San Diego. Rafael Magana and Robert Estrella, both 49 and of National City, died later at the UC San Diego Medical Center.
The critically injured worker, Del Gadillo, suffered multiple internal injuries, according to hospital spokesmen. One man was treated for bruises and released, while two others were listed in good condition.
NASSCO, which builds and repairs commercial and military ships, employs about 2,300 workers at the shipyard, located just south of downtown San Diego.
The accident is the latest in a series of mishaps at the shipyard that, before Friday, had resulted in five deaths in the last seven years, according to company officials.
Last year, two workmen died in separate accidents within two days of one another. In one, an electrician was electrocuted when he touched a high-voltage wire and, in the second, a worker removing scaffolding inside a tanker's storage tank died after being struck in the head by a piece of lumber that fell from a bundle being lifted out by a crane operated by Humphrey.
Les Michael, area manager of federal OSHA's Long Beach office, said that the agency issued safety-violation citations against NASSCO in regard to both of the 1986 accidents. However, the company contested the citations and the matter has not yet been resolved by an administrative law judge, Michael added.
"The basic lesson is, this is dangerous work," union official Zschiesche said. "It always has been. It's always risky. You're up in the air, you're suspended. If something goes wrong, you've had it."
"You know the danger is always there, but you just don't think about it," rigger Farinsky added. "I bet I've been in that same bucket a thousand times. All you can think is, 'It could have been me.' That really makes it hit home."