The former first mate of the ATB tug Buster Bouchard described his shock at seeing blue flames surge across the deck “like if you have a gas grill and hit the ignition,” seconds before an explosion tore through the B. No. 255 barge owned by Bouchard Transportation Co. Inc.

“I didn’t understand it, I didn’t know what I was looking at…then the barge exploded,” Lonnie Roberts told Coast Guard and National Transportation Safety Board investigators during the opening day of hearings into the Oct. 20, 2017 explosion and fire that killed two crewmen in the Gulf of Mexico near Port Aransas, Texas.

Tankermen Zachariah Jackson, 28, of Salt Lake City, and Du’jour Vanterpool, 26, of Houston, were killed while preparing to raise the anchor so the ATB operated by Bouchard, Melville, N.Y., could get underway to deliver its cargo of crude oil to Corpus Christi, Texas.

The hearing resumes Tuesday in Houston, with the Buster Bouchard's captain, Matthew Nichols, scheduled to testify. The Coast Guard has posted documents about the accident online and is livestreaming the proceedings daily this week.

The 488’ oceangoing tank barge and the127’x37’x20’, 6,140-hp Buster Bouchard were in about 40’ of water three miles offshore in the Aransas Anchorage, with an estimated 140,000-bbls. of oil, when the explosion occurred at around 4:30 a.m.

On Monday, Roberts told investigators he had gone on watch at midnight, preparing the voyage plan to Corpus Christi, and was on the tug bridge talking to Jackson via handheld VHF radio as the tankerman examined the anchor chain at the bow of the barge.

Jackson reported that two shots of chain that were out showed heavy strain, a not unusual condition that Roberts said he attributed to current, with wind and wave conditions light.

“The engines were out of gear. We had three instances of heavy strain (on the trip). So that’s not uncommon,” the mate said. “The wasn’t anything alarming … heavy strain is a very common thing when you’re pulling up the anchor.”

The two crewmen on the barge had extinguished the deck lights and prepared running lights for departure, and Roberts said he could see them moving about with flashlights. Vanterpool was at the anchor windlass controls, while up on the bridge Roberts examined the tug’s plotter to see how current might be pushing the barge.

In his peripheral vision, Roberts noticed the first blue flames near the bow of the barge. He likened the sight to a gas flame racing around a propane grill.

“That’s what I saw, the blue flames that were taking over that area where the guys were,” said Roberts. “It was on a path…like the flames were following something.”

The blue flames skittered toward the windlass, and the first explosion rocked the barge, he said. Roberts sounded the general alarm and began working to disengage the tug from the barge.

The tug was able to get free, and after the fire was extinguished the Coast Guard found a massive hole in the forward deck of the barge.

Investigators questioned Roberts about Bouchard safety practices and the conditions on the Buster Bouchard, including a fuel leak that was being monitored in a stern compartment.

“The tug had a lot of issues. We were constantly finding things we needed to fix,” said Roberts. “From the point of view of guys on the tug, a lot of things were pushed off.”

Still, Roberts added, he felt conditions were reasonable and he had a well-paying position with the company.

“As a sailor, you work with what you have,” he said.

In its safety procedures Bouchard has a strongly worded stop-work policy, stating that employees can call an end to an unsafe procedure without repercussions. But Roberts said the tugboat operators preferred to deal with safety situations informally when they could, out of concern that reporting minor incidents could get workers in trouble with the company.

Roberts described one “near miss” when he had to correct a deckhand fixing a stern light, who left tools dangling from a 10' ladder and went back down on deck without a hard hat.

“We try not to fill out paperwork for near misses on our boat,” because it might lead to disciplinary action, when “it could be a learning experience,” said Roberts.

Contributing Editor Kirk Moore was a reporter for the Asbury Park Press for over 30 years before joining WorkBoat in 2015. He wrote several award-winning stories on marine, environmental, coastal and military issues that helped drive federal and state government policy changes. He has also been an editor for WorkBoat’s sister publication, National Fisherman, for over 25 years. Moore was awarded the Online News Association 2011 Knight Award for Public Service for the “Barnegat Bay Under Stress,” 2010 series that led to the New Jersey state government’s restoration plan. He lives in West Creek, N.J.