Houston maritime pilots defied fire to bring a burning ship to safety, averting a major maritime catastrophe.


​Captain McGee and Captain Phillips were surrounded by a towering wall of burning fuel when the ship they were piloting burst into flames in the Houston Ship Channel.

Two maritime pilots who defied fire to bring a burning ship to safety, averting a major maritime catastrophe, received the 2017 IMO Award for Exceptional Bravery at Sea during the 2017 IMO awards ceremony, held on Monday (27 November).

Pilots Captain Michael G. McGee and Captain Michael C. Phillips, from Houston, United States, were recognized for their role in averting a major tragedy in September 2016. The ship they were piloting, the 247 meters-long tanker Aframax River, broke down in the Houston Ship Channel in the middle of the night and burst into flames after colliding with mooring dolphins.

Captain McGee and Captain Phillips were surrounded by a towering wall of burning fuel as the raging fire quickly spread across the channel, threatening other tank ships and nearby waterfront facilities. Both pilots remained at their stations on the bridge of the ship during the fire. Captain McGee managed to manoeuvre the stricken and blazing vessel away from surrounding ships and facilities. Captain Phillips coordinated communications and firefighting efforts with the United States Coast Guard and numerous local fireboats. Captain Phillips rushed to grab a fire extinguisher and put out a fire raging on the port bridge wing.

The inferno was finally extinguished after 90 minutes, leaving both pilots exhausted and suffering minor burns. Captain McGee, using tugs, was then able to bring the damaged tanker safely to a mooring facility.

Captain McGee and Captain Phillips were nominated by the International Maritime Pilots' Association (IMPA). The Award was decided by a panel of judges and endorsed by the IMO Council at its 118th session in July.


Presenting the pilots with medals and certificates, IMO Secretary-General Kitack Lim said they had been faced with a challenge which was out of the ordinary and required great initiative and heroism. 

Accepting the Award, Captain Phillips agreed that the incident on the night of September 6, 2016 was not something that they encountered in routine piloting duties.

“It’s also not something that we train for or practice. Frankly, we didn’t have a lot of time to even think about what we needed to do. We just did it,” Captain Philips said. 

“We’d like to think, however, that we did what we did in large measure because we’re state pilots. We’re used to taking control when we climb aboard a ship. Pilots don’t sit back and wait for others to tell them what to do. We also feel a deep responsibility for protecting our port. We are proud to be state commissioned pilots and proud of what state pilots do in safeguarding their respective ports. In that respect, we accept this award on behalf of our fellow pilots in Houston and everywhere else in the world,” he said.

Certificates of Commendation
During the award ceremony, certificates of commendation were also presented to the following:

Boatswain’s Mate First Class Jacob M. Hylkema, crew member of the 52-foot motor life boat Invincible, United States Coast Guard. He was nominated by the United States of America, for risking his own life in rescuing the master of the sailing vessel Grace during rough seas, driving rain and string winds off the west coast of the United States of America, near Westport, Washington, one night in October 2016.

Admiral Paul F. Zukunft, Commandant of the United States Coast Guard received the certificate on his behalf.

Vice-Captain Damir Rikanovic (a Croatian national) and Marina Team Leader Kurt Dreyer (a German national), crew members of the passenger ship Crystal Esprit. They were nominated by the Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA), for rescuing, at great risk to themselves, eight people from the catamaran El Diablo which had been grounded on a reef off the Seychelles Islands during severe weather in February 2017. 

Vice-Captain Rikanovic was at the ceremony in person to receive his certificate. Mr. Gustaf Gronberg, Senior Vice President, Marine Operations and Newbuilding, Star Cruises Ltd, received Mr. Dreyer’s certificate on his behalf.

Mr. Lee Gwang Hee, Chief Engineer of the fishing boat 2015 Bogyeongho. He was nominated by the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF) for his courage and determination while fighting a fire that had broken out in the engine room of the fishing boat which was off the coast of the Republic of Korea at the time. The fire was quickly spreading. After initially being unable to put out the fire, Mr. Lee, a national of the Republic of Korea, courageously re-entered the engine room, closing ventilators and the entrance door, and extinguished the fire, saving the lives of his fellow seafarers.

Mr. Branko Berlan, Accredited Representative to IMO, International Transport Workers’ Federation, received the certificate on his behalf.

Letters of Commendation
Letters of commendation have been sent to:

Captain Lu Guoqiang, Master of the patrol boat Haixun0611, Lianyungang Maritime Safety Administration, nominated by China, for rescuing seven crew members of the sinking cargo ship Sulianyunganghuo 1667. 

Captain Patrick Norrgård and the crew of the M/V Norstream, nominated by Finland, for rescuing seven crew members of the sunken cargo vessel Fluvius Tamar;

Captain Amir Janbod (posthumously), Master of the M/V Golafruz, nominated by the Islamic Republic of Iran, for his role in the rescue of eight crew members of the yacht Trekker II. Sadly, Captain Janbod passed away on the Golafruz three days later, following a heart attack.

- The crew of the rescue helicopter Pesca II, Galicia Coast Guard Service, and the crew of the rescue helicopter Helimer 211, Spanish Maritime Safety Agency, nominated by Spain, for their role in the coordinated rescue operation of 12 crew members of the sunken fishing vessel Gure Uxua. 

- The crew of the fast rescue boat Kiyem 5, Turkish Directorate General of Coastal Safety, nominated by Turkey, for rescuing all 10 crew members of the sailing boat Acadia 7.

IMO Award for Exceptional Bravery at Sea
This annual Award was established by IMO to provide international recognition for those who, at the risk of losing their own life, perform acts of exceptional bravery, displaying outstanding courage in attempting to save life at sea or in attempting to prevent or mitigate damage to the marine environment. For 2017, 33 nominations were received from 16 Member States and five non-governmental organizations.

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