Coast Guard diver uncertain about divers’ rescue plan

The content originally appeared on: Trinidad and Tobago Newsday

Lt Edric Hargreaves gives evidence at the Commission of Enquiry into the Paria tradgedy at Tower D, Waterfront Complex, Port of Spain, on Monday. Photo by Sureash Cholai

COAST Guard Lieutenant Edric Hargreaves said he was unaware of any rescue plan that was being effected by anyone to rescue four divers who were trapped in a 30-inch pipeline at Berth 6, belonging to Paria Fuel Trading Co Ltd at Pointe-a-Pierre on February 25.

Hargreaves also said his team of Coast Guard divers were not trained or equipped to handle such a rescue, and never prevented anyone else from doing so. He made these statements virtually from Barbados during an evidentiary hearing held by the Paria Commission of Enquiry (CoE) at Tower D of the Port of Spain International Waterfront Centre.

Kazim Ali Jr, Fyzal Kurban, Yusuf Henry, Rishi Nagassar and Christopher Boodram were doing routine maintenance on the pipeline on February 25 when they were sucked into it. Only Boodram survived.Hargreaves said when the incident happened, the only information he received was that divers were missing.

He did not know that the divers had been sucked into the pipeline. Only when Hargreaves and his team of divers arrived on site, did he learn than Boodram had been rescued and the other four divers were trapped in the pipeline.Maharaj asked Hargreaves if he was present when Boodram was rescued.

Hargreaves said no.

Maharaj asked if Hargreaves saw diver Michael Kurban who had helped rescue Boodram.

Hargreaves said, “Yes. He (Kurban) told me that he was one of the rescue divers that was there and he rescued Mr Boodram.”

He claimed that Kurban “was in a very erratic state and using a lot of explicits (sic) and asking if it is that we (coast guardsmen) don’t go into the pipeline.”Hargreaves said coast guard divers were not trained or equipped to undertake underwater rescues in closed spaces.

He rejected claims that the Coast Guard stopped anyone else from going into the pipeline to rescue the divers.

Hargreaves said he spoke to Catherine Balkissoon, the senior Paria official on site at the time.Maharaj asked if Balkissoon gave instructions to prevent anyone going into the pipeline.

Hargreaves said, “No sir. She did not.”While there were other divers in the water at the time his team was there, Hargreaves was uncertain whether a rescue was being undertaken.He recalled being part of a virtual meeting on February 27 when a plan was proposed by Land and Marine Construction Services Ltd (LMCS), the contractor on site, to rescue the four trapped divers who were LMCS employees.

Hargreaves said that plan involved lowering a diver with rope into the pipeline. He disagreed with the plan because he thought it could put the rescue diver in danger along with the four trapped divers.

Asked by Seamen and Waterfront Workers Trade Union (SWUTT) attorney Nyree Alfonso whether he asked other coast guard officers who were on site before him for details of the incident, Hargreaves said those officers were not divers and he felt it best to ascertain the information himself.Alfonso said, “Most extraordinary.”

Lynch asked Hargreaves if his team was basically placed on standby, once the situation became clear and it was also evident they could not effect a rescue.Hargreaves said yes.

Lynch asked Hargreaves if the risk factors in undertaking a rescue of live people were different to those for recovering dead bodies.Hargreaves said, “Yes, there is a difference between the two.”Attorney Prakash Ramadhar, who represents the Kurban and Henry families, criticised Hargreaves for not acting with urgency to rescue the divers. He also criticised Hargreaves for lacking empathy for Kurban, whose father Fyzal was one of the trapped divers.

At one point, Lynch had to caution Ramadhar.

“You can make speeches later on but please do not make them now.”

In response to a question from Paria/Heritage attorney Jason Mootoo, Hargreaves said he never spoke with Paria incident commander Colin Piper about not allowing divers to go into the pipeline.

Responding to a question from LMCS attorney Kamini Persaud-Maharaj, Hargreaves said the word recovery did not strictly mean the recovery of dead bodies. He reiterated that his diving team was there to render whatever assistance they could to rescue the divers.

The CoE’s hearing continues at  Tower D on Wednesday from 9 am.