Report: Sailor’s overboard death was preventable
By ERIK SLAVIN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: January 6, 2010
YOKOSUKA NAVAL BASE, Japan — The death of a USS Shiloh sailor who fell overboard near Tokyo Harbor last summer could have been prevented at several points, according to an official investigation report obtained by Stars and Stripes.
Petty Officer 1st Class Christopher Geathers, 30, was performing a task rarely done at sea — let alone in strong winds and choppy waters — when he fell over the side July 8, just a couple of miles from the harbor’s outer marker, according to the command report and Navy contractors who had worked previously with Geathers aboard the ship.
Geathers was not wearing a flotation device or a harness when he fell from a ladder while working close to the ship’s life rail, the report said.
"Several layers of supervision had both opportunity and responsibility to intervene, but did not take action to reduce the risk in this evolution," according to the report signed by Rear Adm. Kevin Donegan, commander of Task Force 70. "The Sea Detail Fantail Officer-in-Charge, Fantail Safety Officer and the junior Sailor assigned to the work detail physically saw EM1 Geathers conducting his task without the proper safety equipment and did not intervene."
No disciplinary action was recommended by the investigation board for any members of the Shiloh crew. The board’s recommendations that the command conduct shipwide safety training and develop a procedure for rigging shore power equipment were followed, said Task Force 70 spokesman Cmdr. K.C. Marshall.
Just after 1 p.m. on July 8, Geathers climbed a ladder, the report said, to remove a stanchion — a metal pipe over which power cables are placed, keeping them off the deck when the ship hooks up for electricity at its pier.
After removing the stanchion from a bracket Geathers lost his balance and fell overboard.
A life ring was thrown to him within seconds. Six minutes later, a small rescue boat launched but couldn’t find Geathers.
U.S. and Japanese ships and helicopters searched for days afterward. He was declared dead July 15.
Geathers’ division was ordered to switch the stanchion from the left to right side of the ship the night before he drowned. The ship’s mooring plans changed because of a broken shore antenna, according to the report.
Shiloh’s fantail officer in charge had a "brief discussion" with Geathers about shifting the stanchion at sea, but Geathers was not ordered to do it at sea, the report said.
Billy Rose, a retired chief electrician’s mate and contractor who was helping Geathers with his application package for chief petty officer, still can’t understand why Geathers would have switched the stanchion at sea in foul weather without being ordered.
"Ninety-five percent of the time, we do shore power pier side," he said recently. "Then, anytime you get up on a ladder in that weather, that’s even worse."