The next fatality

April 20, 2005

JESUS FLORES was born in Villagran, Mexico, in 1951, and he, like so many others, came north - to the choking metal scrapyards of Brownsville, Texas, where he worked as a cutter for 25 years. This spring, he became acquainted with the remains of the Santa Isabel, a 10,200-ton freighter that had been built when he was 16, at the now defunct Sun Shipbuilding and Drydock Co. in Chester, Pa., and that first saw service under the flag of a company called the Grace Lines.

For the past 21 years, the Santa Isabel has been the property not of Grace but of the U.S. government, rotting at a mooring on the James River in Virginia; last summer, the Maritime Administration contracted with ESCO Marine, in Brownsville, to break the old vessel into scrap. On the morning of April 9, a 12-ton piece of the ship's main deck crushed Mr. Flores to death.

Industrial accidents happen - in Baltimore and Boise as well as in Brownsville. Mr. Flores' boss, Richard Jaross, says he should have known not to cut steel in a way that would place him in danger. Yet this accident stands out as both warning and rebuke to a government agency that should know better.

Mr. Jaross has been in the shipbreaking business for three decades, and his history of accidents and environmental violations is dismal. He helped arrange the ill-starred scrapping of the USS Coral Sea in Baltimore in the 1990s - a project marked by fires, falls and cavalier disposal of asbestos that landed the local partner in federal prison. Mr. Jaross went on to set up a scrapping operation in Wilmington, N.C., that was described by a state official as looking like one of Dante's inner circles of hell, and that, after a fatal explosion, left the U.S. government back in possession of a dozen half-scrapped destroyers that it thought it had gotten rid of. Earlier, after another scrapping job, Mr. Jaross had pleaded guilty to defrauding the government and paid a fine.

His partner at ESCO is Andrew Levy, a lawyer who was barred from managing union pension plans after he lost $20 million belonging to the Maryland-based International Organization of Masters, Mates and Pilots on highly questionable investments, some in companies he had an interest in. Mr. Levy also had a hand in the Coral Sea debacle, and in an equally disastrous ship-scrapping project at Quonset Point, R.I.

These men helped give shipbreaking such a bad name in the 1990s that the Clinton administration put a freeze on old Navy and Maritime Administration ships until Washington could come up with a better plan. Now that freeze is lifted, and although the financial structure of the contracts has been changed, the same people are back doing business with the government. The Maritime Administration says it is required to consider all bids, no matter who makes them. Something is wrong with that.

It may be that Mr. Flores, who left seven children, was at fault in his own death. "He was warned," says Mr. Jaross. Working with a cutting torch under heavy steel, instead of from above, is "like trying to walk in front of a freight train." But he had 25 years' experience and he was supposed to be working under supervision (in an industry that puts a premium on speed and corner-cutting). Before too much more history repeats itself, the government should get serious about how to do this job right.

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