In many ways harbor pilots perform a thankless job. Tasked with navigating giant ships through increasingly busy ports, pilots (generally) evade disaster every single day to make sure the goods that make our economy and lives work are quietly transferred from ship to shore.
But, like with any job that involves high risk - commanding a giant ship in shallow or narrow waters is an example that comes to mind - accidents will happen, as was the case in September 2016. Houston-area pilots Michael McGee and Michael Phillips were helming the 810-foot crude oil tanker, Aframax River, when they encountered engine failure while departing their Houston Ship Canal dock.
As it attempted to drop anchor due to the power failure, the tanker struck two mooring dolphins. One of the dolphins ruptured the ship's fuel tanks, igniting the diesel as it began to spill out.
Aframax River was quickly engulfed in flames that billowed upwards of 200 - 300 feet in the air. The tanker leaked an additional 88,000 gallons of fuel into the water and the fire lasted about 45 minutes. Luckily, the only injuries were minor burns to the ship's two pilots.
While one's initial instinct would be to run away from the fire, Phillips and McGee stood their ground. As the ship was engulfed in flames, Phillips grabbed a fire extinguisher and set to work dousing flames outside the pilothouse on the portside wing bridge.
Captain McGee also wasted no time getting on the radio with the tugs that had assisted them out into the waterway. He used the tugs to position the boat away from shore and other ships, thus preventing the fire from spreading and causing additional damage and possible casualties.
While McGee kept the boat away from traffic, Phillips coordinated with the United States Coast Guard, Houston fireboat response, and the Aframax River's crew who were trying to stay alive. As the fire was billowing around the pilothouse, Phillips turned to McGee and stated, "We are going to die."
But after 90 minutes of considerable effort and bravery the fire was extinguished and the Aframax River was towed to and secured to a mooring. The NTSB provided an investigation after the accident and came to the conclusion that the allision and fire were caused not by crew error but by "a momentary abnormality of the tanker’s main engine governor actuator system in responding to command inputs from the bridge."
The International Maritime Organization gave McGee and Phillips awards for Exceptional Bravery at Sea in August 2017. The award recognizes the extreme courage it took to stay aboard the Aframax River to combat the fire and prevent further tragedy. Hear the Aframax River fire play-by-play from Captains McGee and Philips in the video below: