Captain held by Nigerian pirates sues ECO and Chevron

Written by Nick Blenkey
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Captain Wren Thomas

OCTOBER 22, 2014 — Captain Wren Thomas, an offshore supply vessel captain held hostage by Nigerian pirates for 18 days has filed suit in Texas against Chevron USA and Edison Chouest Offshore, reports VB Attorneys, (Vujasinovic & Beckcom, PLLC) a Houston law firm that specializes in Jones Act lawsuits and which represented half the crew of the Maersk Alabama in a lawsuit against Waterman Steamship Corp and Maersk Line, Limited.

According to VB Attorneys which is his attorney in the Texas suit, the ordeal of Captain Wren Thomas began on October 22, 2013, in the Gulf of Guinea off the coast of Nigeria. His offshore service vessel was ordered over open, unsecured airwaves, to take a route different from his daily supply vessel convoy route.

Captain Thomas’ vessel, the C-Retriever, left the convoy about 10 nautical miles past the fairway buoy to head toward its destination, the Agbami field in the Gulf of Guinea. At 0300 the next morning, his ship came under attack. Captain Thomas and most of his crew barricaded themselves in the Bulk Tank Room, awaiting the inevitable. The vessel did not have a secured room, so the Bulk Tank Room provided them with the most protection. The pirates cut their way into the room and started shooting at the crew with AK-47s. Thomas and his chief engineer’ the only other American on board’ realized the ricocheting bullets were more dangerous than whatever the pirates were intending to do with them. They shouted at the pirates that they were surrendering, and the pirates stopped shooting.

Captain Thomas was able to gain the trust of the pirates and collect a few items of clothing and his malaria pills before he and his engineer were placed aboard a speedboat with six pirates.

Thomas and his engineer were held in the swamps near the coast for over two weeks. They were starved and suffered the physical and psychological trauma of being held captive. Thomas says that his military survival training kicked in, and he focused on getting out of there alive. The two men were released after Edison Chouest, or representatives of Edison Chouest, reportedly paid a ransom, says the law firm.

According to the suit filed in the District Court of Harris County, Texas, October 16, Captain Wren Thomas , a U.S. citizen and an American Seaman, is filing the action under the general maritime law of the United States, the maritime law of the United States as modified under the Jones Act 1920, 46 U.S.C. § 30104.

The filing asserts that in accordance with the terms of the Jones Act, the action is not removable to U.S. District Court.

It says that since 2011, the West African coast near the Nigeria region saw a marked spike in piracy and armed maritime robbery and that in 2013, thirty piracy incidents were reported to occur in the Gulf of Guinea and that
Chevron and ECO “were aware of the problem of piracy in the region and growing security risks for its officers and crews.”

The filing says that Captain Thomas took command of the C-Retriever July 5, 2011 and that after he began working in the region, he “began repeatedly expressing his concerns to ECO and Chevron about the security and safety of the vessel, including the fact that the vessel was too old, too slow, and not equipped with state of the art anti-piracy countermeasures.”

“In the Spring of 2013,” says the filing,” while working aboard the C-Retriever, Thomas began receiving various disturbing messages, including specific death threats over the VHF Radio—the same medium that Defendants would use to broadcast vessel route and security information. Thomas also received targeted threats and death threats to vessel’s local cell phone. Captain Thomas reported these specific threats to his Chevron area manager and his supervisors at ECO. Captain Thomas was assured that the problems would be and were taken care of and Thomas was asked to stay on the vessel due to the fact that if he did get off, the vessel would lose thousands of dollars in down time and possibly its contract with Chevron.

“The company also received an email from an anonymous source directed to Ben Sanamo, which discussed Captain Thomas. The communication concluded with statement that Wren should not return to Nigeria for his mid-Fall hitch.

“In light of these threats, the dangerous conditions, and Defendants failure to take appropriate safety measures, Captain Thomas requested to be transferred. However, as of October 2013, ECO had still not effected his transfer and Captain Thomas was left to continue working in the West African zone of terror.

The filing says that on October 17, 2013, ECO received a detailed threat from a militant group in state of Bayelsa, Nigeria and circulated a warning to its vessels in the region and encouraged the crews on the Bushbuck, CEndeavor, and C-Retriever to “stay very vigilant at all times and review … security plans.”

“Just four days after this violent threat,” says the filing, “on October 22, 2013, Defendants contacted and ordered Captain Thomas to embark on a special supply run from Onne, Nigeria to the Mere and Pennington fields. The route would take Captain Thomas into one of the most pirate-infested areas in West Africa, and directly closer to the source of the recent threats in Bayelsa, Nigeria.

“Captain Thomas disputed the orders with Defendants but was ultimately overruled, and forced to embark on a mission that he knew would make the C-Retriever a sitting duck for pirates and hijackers.

“Captain Thomas and his crew on the C-Retriever departed on October 22, 2013, and in accordance with usual practice Defendants broadcast its route information, locations and instructions through the VHF radios. While in route to their delivery point, at around 3:00am on October 23, 2013, the C-Retriever was attacked by Nigerian pirates.”

According to the filing, the C-Retriever was not equipped with a citadel and Captain Thomas and the majority of his crew attempted to evade capture by taking refuge in the vessel’s Bulk Tank Room. However, after six hours, the pirates were able to breach the room and open gunfire on Captain Thomas and his crew. To avoid loss of life, Thomas and his engineer were forced to surrender.

“Captain Thomas was forced to watch the pirates attack three shrimping-type vessels and witnessed tremendous physical abuse to these crews before he was taken to various holding camps, where he was malnourished, tortured and held captive for 18 days,” says the filing. “While in captivity, Captain Thomas was treated like an animal and developed the realistic expectation of his imminent death among his captors, whether by their hands or by falling prey to disease.”

The suit says that as a result of the incident, among other things, Captain Thomas suffered serious injuries; suffers and continues to suffer disability and experienced much pain, suffering, anxiety, inconvenience, humiliation, mental anguish, emotional distress and other personal injuries and will continue to do so in the future. He has suffered a loss of ability to earn wages to support himself and his family; and he has incurred physician and medical expenses and will continue to do so in the future.

The suit says that Captain Thomas has been required to surrender his USCG license because he has been unable to pass the required physical and that His prospects for ever passing the physical remain questionable.

Captain Thomas demands judgment be entered against Defendants , jointly and severally, for the following: (a) Compensatory damages in such amount as may be determined by the jury at trial; (b) Reasonable maintenance and cure to be determined by the Court as just and proper. (c) Reasonable attorneys’ fees for collection of reasonable maintenance and cure. (d) Punitive damages in such amount as may be assessed by the jury at trial. (e) Interest on all sums awarded beginning October 23, 2013. (f) Reimbursement of all taxable costs necessary to maintain this action. (g) All general and equitable relief which this Court can afford the

Plaintiffs demand a jury on all triable issues.

Read the filing HERE

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