"Blasts Every Second": What Caused the Port Aransas Barge Explosion?
On October 20, ship engineer Timothy Lerette and a co-worker sailed into the dark waters of the Gulf to find his crewmates.
He saw a lifejacket floating a short distance from the Bouchard-owned oil barge they worked on. He knew who it was: Du'jour Vanterpool, 26, one of two crewmembers working on the deck that night. He was dead.
"We tried to retrieve him but he slipped out of his life jacket and sank to the bottom," Lerette was quoted saying in a later GCaptain.com report. Later, the Coast Guard recovered Vanterpool's remains.
The body of Zachariah Jackson, the captain of Bouchard Barge No. 255, would never be found. Arnold & Itkin is currently representing his family.
"I Was Hearing Blasts Every Second"
The Bouchard barge explosion has only one living witness: first mate Lonnie Roberts.
Roberts testified in a two-week Coast Guard hearing that a circle of "low blue flames" encircled Jackson and Vanterpool, who were both working on the bow. Moments later, a massive explosion launched them both into the Gulf waters. “I have time to think to myself, what am I looking at—I’m trying to process it—and then the barge exploded,” Roberts said in the first of a series of GCaptain articles on the Coast Guard hearing. "I was hearing blasts every second."
The B255 was a 448-foot oil barge that was nearly 4 decades old. At the time, it was loaded up with 140,000 barrels of crude oil. Jackson and his crew were using a tugboat to transport the oil to a Corpus Christi refinery. At the time of the explosion, the ship was located shortly off the shore of Port Aransas.
Lerette was in the engine room preparing to depart when he heard the explosions. During the recovery efforts, all he could find of Zach were his white-laced sneakers—they were charred and stringy from the blast.
Two Sister Bouchard Barges in Hazardous Condition
The real story of B255 begins months earlier—and includes several former employees, company officials, Coast Guard officials, and multiple barges.
For one, a report in the Corpus Christi Caller revealed that the brother of Zachariah Jackson (also a Bouchard Transportation employee), a former captain of a Bouchard barge, and a retired Coast Guard officer all testified that B255 might have been caused by a gas vapor leak.
Why did they think so?
Because Morgan Jackson's oil barge, B275, had the same issue months earlier.
In May 2017, Morgan Jackson found a gas vapor leak in the cargo hold that left him incapacitated for hours, despite short exposure. Morgan left the ship in August, and the leak still wasn't fixed despite it being reported. The then-captain of B275, Adam Cowart, discovered the leak in October that same year. Another crew member first reported the B275 vapor leak to Bouchard management, and “they told him it wasn’t a good time.”
Cowart then reported it to Bouchard himself, who refused to repair it. They instead asked him to "blow it down," or to literally blow air into the cargo hold to dissipate explosive vapors.
Only a few weeks later, a whistleblower contacted the Coast Guard to alert them to the leak. Commander James Bigbe sent an inspection team out, but they found nothing wrong. The whistleblower contacted Bigbe again and told him to look specifically in a certain cargo hold. This time, Bigbe accompanied his team, and they found the leak.
Both Captains Leave the Ship for Dangerous Conditions
On Bouchard Barge No. 245, another sister barge to No. 255, there were serious repair issues in the weeks surrounding the October explosion.
First captain Eric Hinman was asked to take the barge from Tampa to Houston before repairs to the vessel could be completed. He refused and resigned from his post. Second captain Greg Spencer nearly walked off as well, but Bouchard convinced him to stay until arriving in Houston—where he walked off. Two captains quit at once.
Before leaving, Hinman forwarded emails between him and Bouchard establishing the company's knowledge of the problems B245 was facing. The captain sent them to his crew members for one reason: he didn't want any of the Bouchard executives claiming ignorance if "something" were to happen to the vessel.
Third mate Kevin Hardwick, a close friend of Zachariah Jackson, testified that Spencer only stayed because he would not need to stay to load the barge. The Bouchard oil barge left the shipyard under strange circumstances—Hardwick said that the shipyard workers were being rushed off the barge while the vessel was told to leave immediately. Repairs were left unfinished, with some repairs completely untested for water-tightness. Below deck, 80 percent of cargo hold valves weren't working.
A Fateful Call the Night Before
There's another reason that Bouchard Transportation could be to blame for the B255 oil barge explosion: the night before it happened, the off-duty captain tried to explain to Jackson how to prevent gas vapors from building up in the cargo hold. Lerette testified that Amos Franks spoke with Jackson the night before the explosion because Jackson asked how to vent gas vapors on the barge. After Franks explained it, Lerette said Franks vocally doubted that Jackson understood his instructions.
Amos Franks denies that any such call took place.
"It Was Just Part of the Culture of the Company"
The hearings didn't just reveal negligence or missteps—it uncovered a culture of intimidation, concealment, and unwillingness to invest in crucial safety measures.
Officials in the background of the story include:
- Bouchard's head of maintenance and repair
- One of the vice presidents at the oil transportation company
- At least one owner of Bouchard Transportation
Each of the people above weave in and out of the story at vital moments, each one capable of stemming the wave of events that led to Zach and Du'jour's deaths.
On B275—the oil barge where a whistleblower alerted the Coast Guard to a vapor leak that had existed prior to the explosion of B255—Commander Bigbe interviewed a tankerman who confirmed that the head of repairs and the VP both knew the gas meter showed explosive vapor levels. Captain Adam Cowart confirmed that the head of repairs was aware of the vapor issue and ordered Cowart not to speak to the Coast Guard. While the tankerman was being questioned, Bigbe reported that the employee received a direct phone call from a company owner, who made him feel like his job was in jeopardy for speaking to the Coast Guard.
Lonnie Roberts confirmed that such an approach wasn't limited to the sister barge:
“We tried not to fill out paperwork for [incidents that nearly resulted in disaster] because, at least on our vessel, there was a concern that guys would get fired for a near miss if you wrote a near miss or something someone did like that instead of learning from it. It was something that was pushed under the rug. It was just part of the culture of the company.”
The head of repairs was also the one who ordered B245 to leave Tampa in the middle of repairs, prompting the departure of two captains. Whatever issues B245 had, he was made aware of them—Captain Eric Hinman's emails confirm as much.
It Was a "Mistake" to Report Safety Issues
None other than a former Bouchard executive testified to the defensive posture Bouchard executives took regarding their safety practices. Shawn Garry, the former VP of regulatory compliance, recalled a phone call he received from a member of the Bouchard family after the fire on B255 was extinguished. Garry had allowed two firefighters to stay on the barge in case the fire reignited, and they shared meals with the crew while aboard.
The unnamed owner called Garry in the middle of the night to verbally "harangue" him, saying that those firefighters should never have been allowed to stay.
Perhaps the most telling testimony came from Timothy Lerette, who said that Zach had reported the problems aboard 255—and was told that was a mistake:
- Lerette: "I don’t know the specifics on all the problems. I know I had a conversation with Zach Jackson and he told me he reported issues because we had an audit coming up and he was a new barge captain. And he reported those issues to Bouchard and he got a call from [the VP] saying that it was a mistake to do that."
- CWO Jeanes: "What was a mistake?"
- Lerette: "To report those issues."
- CWO Jeanes: "Can you explain that just a little bit more? I want to make sure I’m understanding what you’re saying."
- Lerette: "He was trying to imply he was going to be fired because he reported those issues."
Remember Their Names
These men didn't die from an accident. They died from a series of other people's choices—choices that prioritized profits over safety, choices that opted for the cheap options over the good one, choices that put dozens of people in danger.
Morgan Jackson said, "If the company continues to exist, they have to be held accountable for their actions."
No matter what happens after these hearings and trial, Bouchard Transportation cannot be allowed to keep doing the same things over and over. They cannot be permitted to rob more families of brothers and sisters, sons and daughters, or husbands and wives at risk. They cannot be permitted to shear away the people who make our lives rich, full, and worthwhile.
Lonnie Roberts, the last person to witness Zach and Du'jour alive, carries their last moments around with him to this day. In a KRIS interview, he said "We cannot forget the experience that those guys went through. We're trying to save other people's lives."
Zach and Du'jour's names deserve to be remembered—as fond memories by their loved ones and as warnings to companies that have their employees' lives in their hands. They deserve to be remembered because they lived, because they died, and because they should be here with us now.
They deserve to be remembered—let their names be the last ones Bouchard Transportation will ever need to remember.
Read full coverage of the hearings at GCaptain's site.