ROUGH WATER RESCUE

Rough seas battered the Penny F, an oceangoing tug boat with a crew of six men on the morning of Nov. 17, 2014.

Little did they know that they would be heroes that morning, saving the lives of hundreds of people and averting what could have very well been among the worst disasters in the Gulf of Mexico’s maritime history.



The waves were 12-to-13 feet high and temperatures dropping to freezing quickly as a cold front moved east and south. A polar vortex encompassed the entirety of North America and one of the three captains of the Penny F. Terry Higginbotham, was maneuvering the 166-foot tug to compensate for the wind and waves.

Deckhand David Jackson was in the wheelhouse with Higginbotham and had just completed an engine check when a call for help came over the radio.

The AT/B Valiant/Everglades, a 500-foot, 26,800-ton container ship and tug boat combo, had lost power on the entire vessel and was drifting straight toward an oil and natural gas production platform 90 miles south of Intracoastal City, Louisiana.



Jackson said the first words that came to mind when he heard the distress call: “This can’t be happening.” He said he thought the Penny F was too far away to get to the Valiant in time.

Higginbotham sent Jackson to wake First Captain Rusty Duplantis and headed the tugboat toward the platform.

The East Cameron 321A production platform produces both oil and natural gas in waters 220 feet deep. According to an operator who asked not to be named, the morning crew had just finished breakfast and was about to head to a safety meeting. Men were sitting around the table, just chatting, when one of the workers ran in from the smoking deck.



“He ran inside and said, ‘There’s a boat and it’s coming to the platform,’ the operator said. “And we said, ‘We’re offshore. Boats come to the platform. That’s what they do.'”

“And he said, ‘No. There’s a boat. Go look,”‘ the operator recounted. “He was panicked.”

A couple of guys got up and looked out the door and saw the rear of a behemoth ship bearing down on them. It was 60-to-90 feet from the platform, not a single light on, being battered by the sea on a collision course straight for them.



“It was rocking back and forth,” the operator said. “You could tell [the captain] didn’t have any control over it.”

He ran back inside and ordered the men to get back inside and “shut the platform in.” That meant reaching the safety levers strategically placed throughout the platform that, when pulled, activate every safety mechanism, effectively shutting down the facility. Every pipeline, pump and valve was shut off immediately.

The operator ran upstairs to get lifejackets. On the way back down, he saw some men running to see the threat for themselves.



“One guy would walk to the door, then he’d turn around and be terrified and take off running,” he said. “I mean, just one after the other. Human nature: Everybody had to go look… Then they’d go run upstairs to get lifejackets.”

The Penny F. was a mile away, so the clerk on the platform radioed for help, the operator said. But the vessel was over a mile away. The men gathered at their “muster station,” which the operator said was actually right where the Valiant/Everglade was poised to hit, and together accepted their fate.

“At that point, we decided that we were probably going to get hit,” the operator said. The ship was now between 40 and 60 feet from the platform. The men were in a state of panic. Some men were crying. Others were praying.



The operator said the men who work on oil platforms are used to being in control of every situation. If there was a leak, they would shut off the valve. Fire? They’d extinguish it. But this situation was not in their control, and weighed heavily on the crew.

“We were truly prepared to make peace with our gods and meet them,” the operator said. He was on his knees, clutching a handrail, bracing for the unimaginable impact.

The operator said the Penny F. was visible as the tugboat rushed toward the vessel.



“We could see the Penny F. coming over, and the waves were so big… you’d see her lights and then you wouldn’t see them,” he said.

PENNY F’S PLAN: GET AS CLOSE AS YOU CAN

The crew met briefly in the wheelhouse to formulate a plan, which at that point was very simple: “Pretty much to get as close as we could and play it by ear,” deckhand Jackson said.



The Penny F. raced to the Valiant and the crew saw it was just in time to either avert or become part of the disaster.

Higginbotham said when they finally arrived at the ship, he looked up and could see the heliport over Valiant/Everglades.

Duplantis said what happened next would not have been possible had the bow – the front of the vessel – of the Valiant/Everglades not been facing the wind. He maneuvered the tugboat’s stern into the wind alongside the ship, using it as a buffer from the waves.



The crew of the Valiant/Everglades then tried to drop a steel cable attached to a 4-inch rope that the crew of the Penny F. could attach to its “bit,” a solid steel column shaped like a lowercase “t.” The crew of the Penny F. then used a hook to grab the cable, tie off the rope and tow the Valiant/Everglades away from the platform.

The crew of the Penny F. worked as the waves crashed over the rear deck. But they never lost their wits.

“It was like we had done it before,” said deckhand Kanen Pierre. “But it was dangerous.”



“We all knew what we had to do, so we did it,” said Emile Verdin, another deckhand aboard the Penny F. “We didn’t really think about it.”

The first time they caught the line, the rope was too short to hook onto the bit, and the Penny F. was literally touching the hull of the Valiant/Everglades, said crew member Robert Richardson.

That was the most nerve-wracking moment of the whole experience, Richardson said. All the while the ship was still moving toward the platform.



The second time the crew of the Valiant/Everglades dropped the cable, the rope was long enough to hook. After that, Capt. Duplantis pulled the Valiant/Everglades away from the platform.

But the Valiant/Everglades was many times larger than the Penny F. They could not move the ship.

“The Penny F. managed to hang on long enough to keep the barge off of us,” an operator said. The Penny F was preventing the goliath ship from colliding with a platform with 15 to 20 feet between the two crafts. Jim described the Valiant/Everglades as four times the length and 100 times the weight of the Penny F.



Capt. Duplantis pushed the Penny F. hard, but the rope snapped. It was at that moment when lights started to come on aboard the Valiant/Everglades. The ship had regained power and was able to push itself away from the platform.

After the ordeal, the men on the platform were evacuated by U.S. Coast Guard helicopters, the Penny F. and two other commercial vessels that were nearby.

The 40 or so men on the EC 321A sat in silent relief. There was no jubilation; just the shock from enduring the most terrifying experience of their lives.



The crew of the Penny F. received Letters of Commendation from the Coast Guard during a luncheon Wednesday in its honor at Copeland’s in Houma.

“It gives us a good feeling to know that we were able to help,” Richardson said.

PLATFORM OF TERROR



The crew of the Penny F. present their awards from the Coast Guard. Pictured from left are Rusty Duplantis, Robert Richardson, Kanen Pierre, David Jackson, Emile Verdin and Terry Higginbotham at a luncheon held in their honor at Copeland’s restaurant in Houma.

JEAN-PAUL ARGUELLO | THE TIMES