BOSTON (CBS) – The state-run Massachusetts Maritime Academy in Buzzards Bay says safety at sea is a top priority, but the I-Team has found that not everyone agrees, with critics suggesting the academy may be placing its young cadets in jeopardy.
Full-body, waterproof survival suits — also called immersion suits — can stretch survival time in the chilly water off the New England coast from minutes to hours.
They are so effective that every person aboard every cargo vessel that sails in cold water is required to have one in case they have to abandon ship.
WBZ-TV’s Kathy Curran reports
“It’s a matter of life and death,” said Kevin O’Halloran, who has worked 32 years in the maritime industry, 16 of those as a ship captain. “These are one of the greatest things we’ve had on ships for survival, crew survival, over the last 30 years.”
The Coast Guard rewrote its regulations to require survival suits after the Massachusetts-bound cargo ship SS Marine Electric sank in February 1983 and 31 of its 34 crewmen died in icy waters off the coast of Virginia.
One of the sailors who died was a graduate of the Mass Maritime Academy and he’s remembered on a campus memorial.
But the I-Team has discovered that some of the lessons of the Marine Electric disaster aren’t necessarily being applied at the Mass Maritime Academy.
Each year about 600 cadets set sail on a six week mission aboard the academy’s cargo ship, the TS Kennedy. The school provides survival suits for crew and faculty, but not for the cadets.
“The idea that the crew and the officers would receive an immersion suit and the students would not, it just made them seem very second class, very expendable,” said one parent of a Mass Maritime cadet., who agreed to talk only if we hid her identity.
The school is in compliance with Coast Guard regulations, which classify the TS Kennedy as a passenger ship, not a cargo ship, and do not require that each cadet have their own survival suit.
The parent said the cost of immersion suits — between $400 and $600 dollars apiece — is insignificant when weighed against the safety of the cadets. “It seems as if they’re saving money in a very foolish area,” she said.
“I think it’s a poor decision,” said O’Halloran, who graduated from the Mass Maritime Academy and now works as a maritime safety auditor.
“Safety is everybody’s business and if you’re going to have survival suits for one group of people you have to have them for everybody,” he said.
Captain Thomas Bushy, vice president of marine operations at Mass Maritime, defended the school’s policy, emphasizing that the TS Kennedy complies with every Coast Guard safety regulation.
“There’s going to be risk in almost everything we do in life,” Bushy said. “I can’t eliminate every single element of risk on this ship.”
Asked if he would want an immersion suit on board for every cadet, Bushy said: “I don’t think that it adds that level, that increased level of safety. I don’t think it would be worth it.”
Officials at Maine Maritime Academy take a different approach, providing survival suits for every cadet on their annual training voyage. A spokesman said: “It’s our intention to provide the highest degree of safety for everybody on board, no matter whether they’re crew or cadets.”
The other two public maritime academies in New York and California do not provide survival suits for cadets on their training ships.