Fire burns bunker oil from the 810-foot tanker, Aframax River, after their hull was punctured in the Houston Ship Channel, September 6, 2016.

The International Maritime Organization has awarded the 2017 IMO Award for Exceptional Bravery at Sea to two Houston ship pilots for their role in preventing a major disaster when the ship they were piloting broke down and burst into flames in the Houston Ship Channel.

The Award for Exceptional Bravery at Sea is the IMO’s highest honor for bravery at sea.

The two pilots – Captains Michael McGee and Michael Phillips – are the first harbor pilots ever to be nominated and named recipients of the award. Remarkably, no lives were lost in the incident, and a major marine pollution incident was avoided through the pilots’ heroic efforts.

The incident occurred shortly after midnight on September 6, 2016, when Captain McGee and Captain Phillips were piloting the 247-meter MT Aframax River, unladen at the time, in the Houston Ship Channel. The size of the tanker meant it required two pilots.

As McGee was conning the vessel during undocking, the ship experienced sudden engine failure and struck two mooring dolphins. As a result of the contact, a port fuel tank was ruptured and diesel fuel spilled into the water, which quickly ignited. Within moments, the ship was engulfed in flames – reaching up to 60 to 90 meters high at times. The raging inferno quickly spread across the channel, threatening other tank ships and nearby waterfront facilities, and enveloped the area in thick toxic smoke.

A video of the inferno was captured by the crew of another vessel in the area:

Despite the danger, and at great risk to their own lives, both pilots remained at their stations on the bridge of the ship. Captain McGee managed to maneuver the stricken and blazing vessel away from surrounding ships and facilities. Meanwhile, Captain Phillips coordinated communications and firefighting efforts with the United States Coast Guard and numerous local fireboats. Captain Phillips rushed to grab a fire extinguisher and put out a fire raging on the port bridge wing.

At one point, as the water and the vessel were engulfed with flames and disaster seemingly imminent, Phillips turned to McGee and warned, “We are going to die.” But luckily that wasn’t the case.

The inferno was extinguished after about 90 minutes, leaving both pilots exhausted and suffering minor burns – but alive. Captain McGee, using tugs, was then able to bring the damaged tanker safely to a mooring facility.

In the end, and as a result of their courageous actions, no lives were lost, serious damage to pier structures and petro-chemical facilities was prevented, and a major marine pollution incident was avoided.

“This incident could have been much worse, but was mitigated due to the prompt and effective response of two Port of Houston Authority fire boats,” said Capt. Peter Martin, the Captain of the Port and commander of Coast Guard Sector Houston-Galveston, shortly following the accident.

In recognition of their heroic efforts, last February, the Rear Admiral David R. Callahan for the USCG 8th District presented Meritorious Public Service Awards to Captains McGee and Phillips for their actions in preventing a disaster on the busiest commercial shipping waterway in the United States.

Capt. McGee has been a Houston Pilot for 18 years and Capt. Phillips for 24 years. They exemplify the quality of master mariners who comprise the Houston Pilots Association,” said Captain Robert Shearon, Presiding Officer of the Houston Pilot Commission. “We are very proud of them as well as of their achievements and contributions to state pilotage.”

Captain McGee and Captain Phillips were nominated for the IMO Award for Exceptional Bravery at Sea by the International Maritime Pilots’ Association (IMPA), and the Award was decided by a Panel of Judges and endorsed by the IMO Council at its 118th session in London last week.

Of a total of 33 nominations from 16 Member States and 5 non-governmental organizations, another three nominations will receive Certificates of Commendation, and five will receive Letters of Commendation.

The awards will be presented November 27 at a special IMO ceremony.


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