Marines want overhaul of man-overboard policy

Death at sea prompts call for new life jackets

By Jeanette Steele

July 7, 2003

On a blustery afternoon in December, Cpl. Robert Contreras was working on the flight deck of the Belleau Wood, a Navy ship carrying Marines home to San Diego after six months overseas.

Contreras went to use the bathroom, and three co-workers remember him heading toward stairs on the ship's starboard side.

They never saw him again.

A lookout noticed a movement and then a splash in the ocean. He saw a body rise to the surface, float face down, then sink. Contreras' body was not recovered.

He was a 21-year-old aviation ordnance technician with a wife at home.

Now, a Marine Corps investigation into his death recommends three policy changes that might save a life next time someone falls overboard, as Contreras apparently did in the nearly 40-knot winds lashing the deck that day.

The Marines want troops outfitted with the most sophisticated life jackets and tracking devices available, and also have asked the Navy to change a policy on protective railings on ships.

Contreras was not wearing a self-inflating life jacket, a newer piece of equipment donned by most sailors working on flight decks. Most of the Marines in Contreras' aircraft maintenance unit had an older version, the investigation found.

The older jacket requires the wearer to inflate it, something Contreras apparently was unable to do. The self-inflating version activates on contact with saltwater.

Investigators recommend that all Marines working on ship flight decks get the newer jackets and that deploying aircraft squadrons receive the funds to supply them.

Excepted would be Marines working inside aircraft cockpits, where they could become trapped by the vest if the plane rolled overboard. Contreras sometimes worked in the cockpit, but not the day he died.

The newer equipment has been a longtime goal for the Marines, but money has been an issue. The vests cost $247 each. There have been enough jackets only for those in high-risk jobs.

Now, the acting commander of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force, which includes Camp Pendleton and Miramar Marine Corps Air Station, has ordered that squadrons receive all the vests they need.

"It's an issue of supply and getting them out into the fleet," said Col. Don Armento, a Camp Pendleton staff judge advocate involved with the report.

"Let's expand the scope to be safer for everyone. That's what they are saying. Let's not have funding be the limiting factor on who can be provided safety."

Contreras was the only Marine lost at sea in the past year. Two sailors died after falling off the amphibious assault ship Nassau in May. At least one other sailor went over the side, but was rescued.

The policy changes offer small solace to Samuel Contreras, father of the Marine who died.

"For other families, yes, so no other families have to go through this," said Samuel Contreras, who lives in Glen Avon, a Riverside County community where his son was raised.

He is unhappy that his son didn't have the newer equipment and criticizes the Navy for waiting an extra 12 minutes to launch a rescue helicopter which was ready to go 15 minutes after the man-overboard signal.

The investigation said the ship's commander held the helicopter to ensure a safe takeoff, to allow the ship to maneuver into a better position and to complete a muster to determine who was missing.

The Belleau Wood conducted a 57-hour search for Robert Contreras over 1,200 square nautical miles, including 60 helicopter trips.

Samuel Contreras said because his son's body never was found, the family has been unable to find closure.

"To us, he's not gone," he said. "He was out there for six months, and it just seems like he's still out there. . . . We wonder every day where he's at, or if something else happened."

Marine investigators also called for man-overboard transmitters for Marines working on deck.

The transmitter is new technology for the Navy, which began experimenting with it in 1999. Worn with a life vest, the transmitter also is activated by saltwater and emits an electronic signal picked up on the ship's bridge.

Belleau Wood had 250 transmitters in December as part of the Navy's test program. Contreras' job wasn't considered high-risk for falling and he wasn't issued one, the report said.

The Navy will begin installing the systems in all surface ships this fall. Everyone working on deck with a life vest will get a transmitter, said program manager Don Neuman at Naval Sea Systems Command in Washington, D.C.

It will take three years to outfit about 200 ships at a cost of $30 million, Neuman said.

The Marine investigation also suggests changing Navy policy on shipboard catwalk ladder stanchions, which are retractable poles on the stairs that provide a three-foot protective railing when raised.

When Contreras left the Belleau Wood's flight deck, he used a platform, or landing, that had no railing. That is because the stanchions were lowered, following Navy policy for an underway ship because the poles can endanger aircraft taking off and landing.

Other Marines on the flight deck said they were uncomfortable using the platform, especially during rough seas, the report said.

The Marine investigation suggests the stanchions remain up for safety, except when aircraft are moving.

A spokesman for the Navy's Amphibious Group 3, which includes the Belleau Wood, said the group commander is waiting for recommendations from a parallel investigation by the Naval Safety Center in Norfolk, Va.

Jeanette Steele: (760) 476-8244;

JIM BAIRD / Union-Tribune
Petty Officer 3rd Class Matthew Dill wears a self-inflating life jacket with a man-overboard transmitter.