Black Immigrant Daily News
Paria Trading Ltd’s acting technical lead Catherine Balkissoon cries as she gives evidence at a Commission of Enquiry into the Paria tragedy at the International Waterfront Centre, Port of Spain, on Wednesday. – ROGER JACOB
A weeping and emotionally distressed Catherine Balkissoon, Paria’s acting technical lead, told the Commission of Enquiry (CoE) into the February 25 diving tragedy that the company did the best it could to save the lives of those involved. But she said that every day, she wonders if there was something more she could have done to save the lives of the four divers who died.
On February 25, Kazim Ali Jr, Fyzal Kurban, Yusuf Henry, Rishi Nagassar and Christopher Boodram were doing maintenance on a 30-inch pipeline at Berth 6, belonging to Paria Fuel Trading Co Ltd, Pointe-a-Pierre, but were sucked into the pipeline. Only Boodram survived.
The incident occurred around 2.45pm and Balkissoon said she arrived at the scene at 6 pm. She said she went there with a “hope in (her) heart” that the men were still alive and burst into tears more than once during her testimony.
Rescue divers from diving company LMCS, including Michael Kurban – son of Fyzal Kurban – previously testified saying Paria instructed them not to enter the pipeline to attempt a rescue because it was too risky. This has since been confirmed by Paria officials. However, Michael Kurban entered the pipeline briefly and retrieved an air tank which was blocking camera access inside of it.
A major factor into the accident is a phenomenon called Delta P or “differential pressure,” which refers to the movement of water from an area of high pressure to low pressure. It is a known hazard when it comes to diving.
Lead counsel for the CoE Ramesh Lawrence Maharaj, SC, asked Balkissoon if Paria has a written, documented incident command system for emergencies.
She said, “Yes, we have a policy.”
This policy was then shown on a screen.
It outlined that the system is activated upon notification of an emergency and “promotes communications and co-ordination, and all responders must understand the system and their duties within it.”
Its key duties were listed as establishing and directing a command structure that suits the needs of the incident, notifying all affected organisations and individuals, and co-ordinating all response activities and resources.
It said the operations section chief should direct tactical operations, the planning section chief should assess the “probable course of events and assemble and evaluate information needed to prepare incident action plans,” while the logistics section chief should assemble personnel, resources and equipment needed to respond to the incident.
“All incidents require management via an action plan,” it says.
But Balkissoon said the company did not have an emergency plan in place for the possibility of a Delta P occurring within a pipeline. She added Paria still has not developed an emergency plan to deal with that possibility.
Asked by CoE chairman Jerome Lynch if she thinks such a plan should be developed, she said Paria could “engineer out the possibility of the impact of a Delta P,” so a set plan isn’t necessary.
Lynch then asked what if “engineering out” the possibilities failed, and Balkissoon said, “I don’t think that we could ever come up with an acceptable emergency plan to rescue someone in there. That’s my opinion.”
She later said that creating such a plan could be worthwhile.
In his testimony on November 22, Boodram said the divers were not warned of the risk of a Delta P.
Despite Paria telling rescue divers not to enter the pipeline, Balkissoon said she was aware Michael Kurban went against those orders.
Maharaj asked her if, upon realising there were rescue divers around, she thought it was important to find out if they were willing to attempt a rescue.
She said yes, and that the information was passed on to terminal operations manager Collin Piper.
After realising Boodram was rescued, she said her main aim was still to preserve human life. She said people on shore would have taken information from him, so she did not consider it important to personally try speaking to him.
“I thought it might have been more important to head to the site because, perhaps, it would have had more people who were injured and needed assistance.”
Balkissoon admitted she was “really nervous” about testifying.
She said she spoke to two LMCS divers who asked for equipment, which she organised.
She said she was not interested in finding out from Michael Kurban what the conditions were like inside of the pipe.
After being pressed by Maharaj, she said in hindsight, she should have asked him about that.
She said about five hours later, Piper told her what Boodram communicated to him.
“Little bit late, don’t you think?” Lynch asked.
She did not know there were air pockets in the pipeline until around 10 pm.
She was asked if she believed Paria took “quick and urgent action,” especially as rescue divers were told to wait for five hours for a camera to arrive to go into the pipeline.
She said she believes the company acted quickly and urgently in assessing the risks of such a rescue attempt.
But Lynch suggested if her father or son was in the pipeline, she may have acted differently.
This brought her to tears and led to a break after Lynch apologised.
But he stood by his sentiment, saying: “I cannot divorce myself from the fact that if it were my son, I might take a risk I wouldn’t of it were not my son.”
Attorney Prakash Ramadhar, who represents the Henry and Kurban families, asked her if she knew she had been in the witness box for over two hours. She laughingly said it felt like “much more (time) than that.”
Ramadhar said, “Seems pretty long, doesn’t it? At least the time that Christopher would have been in that pipe before, by the grace of God, he was rescued…Pretty long time.”
Balkissoon has been in the energy industry for 24 years, having previously worked at Petrotrin before it was shut down.
Clarifying with her that she is an engineer, Ramadhar asked if in her field of work, possibilities and probabilities, of a scientific basis, are considered to which she said yes.
Ramadhar asked, “It’s possible that I could win the lotto but it is not probable if I didn’t buy a ticket, you agree?”
She said it’s impossible to win the lotto if he did not buy a ticket.
He continued, “So if you (Paria) took no action to rescue, no rescue was possible.”
He later asked her how she would rate herself on that day, she said when it comes to saving a rescuer’s life, she did well.
Ramadhar said, “You saved the world and allowed four to perish. That’s the equation, isn’t it?”
He continued, “When was the decision made by Paria to execute a rescue to save the lives of these men?”
Balkissoon said, “It (a decision) was not made to have a rescue.”