Thursday, May 22, 2008
A bevy of federal and local agencies continued their investigation into the deaths Tuesday of three men who suffocated aboard a cargo ship at Port Everglades. They are trying to determine whether a leaking container of argon gas was improperly stored in the ship's unventilated hull - and whether the tragedy could have been prevented. It may take months to piece together what happened in an enclosed compartment aboard the Madeleine, a 338-foot cargo ship bound for Ecuador. The men - all employees of Florida Transportation Services - died after breathing in argon gas. The lack of oxygen caused them to suffocate, authorities ruled. President John Gorman Jr. issued a statement Wednesday defending his company's safety record. ''Despite the recent tragic event, Florida Transportation Services has been a safe vendor at Port Everglades for the past 27 years,'' he said. On Wednesday, with Occupational Safety and Health Administration and Coast Guard officials milling around the port, somber dock workers tried to focus on their jobs. Noticeably absent were Hayman Sooknanan, 47, James Cason, 43, and Rene Robert Dutertre Jr., 25. ''People are in disbelief that this happened,'' said David Randall, a crane operator at the port for 12 years. ''It's been really tough.'' A memorial service honoring the three port workers is scheduled for next week at Port Everglades. Florida Transportation Services is organizing the service for the victims' families, port employees and the public.
MSC MadeleineAmong those planning to attend is Chris Sooknanan, 22. He hopes people remember the honorable way his father lived, not his tragic death. ''My father loved his family very much,'' he said. ''And he considered his co-workers family also. It was clear that he lived for his work at the port.'' On Wednesday morning, Sooknanan stopped by Port Everglades to retrieve his father's belongings, including his champagne-colored Honda Accord. Seeing the car - and the blue ship that his father died on - turned into an emotional experience. ''I just broke down,'' he said. ''It was physically draining just to be there.'' A visitation for Sooknanan will be from 2 to 4 and 6 to 8 p.m. Friday at Baird-Case Funeral Home and Cremation Services, 4701 N. State Road 7 in Tamarc, Fla. Another viewing will be held from 11 a.m. to noon Saturday at the Church of God Pompano Beach, Fla., 731 SW 10th St., followed by the funeral service. Afterward, Sooknanan will be buried at Star of David Cemetery, 7701 Bailey Rd. in North Lauderdale, Fla. MSC MadeleineFuneral services for Cason and Dutertre have not been finalized. Meanwhile, compliance officers from OSHA interviewed dockworkers who were on duty when the incident happened. Randall, a close friend of the three men who perished, told OSHA officers that more stringent safety measures could have prevented the deaths. He suggested tanks holding dangerous contents be properly labeled and that ships be outfitted with a sensor to gauge oxygen levels. ''All this could have been avoided - and it should have,'' he said. According to the Broward Sheriff's Office, Sooknanan, a supervisor, collapsed in the hull of the ship while looking for a reported gas leak. Cason and Dutertre soon followed to help him and met the same fate. It was later discovered that a large white container of argon gas, a tasteless and odorless gas most commonly used for welding, was leaking in an enclosed area. The gas is not toxic, but when in confined areas it depletes the oxygen, making it nearly impossible to breathe. Using evidence it collects and interviews with employees, OSHA will produce a factual account and a timeline of what happened Tuesday, said spokesman Michael Wald. A final report will be issued within six months. Joining the investigation: the Broward Sheriff's Office, the U.S. Coast Guard, the Department of Homeland Security and the U.S. Department of Transportation.