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Experts say Westport Marina hold-open fuel latches violated codes

LINCOLNTON Hold-open latches on fuel nozzles at Westport Marina, where a 2008 boat explosion killed 19-year-old Nate Coppick, violated state and federal laws, witnesses testified in Superior Court on Monday.

After an Easter break, testimony resumed in a civil suit against Petroleum Equipment & Service Inc. of Denver, the company that installed the fuel system at the marina.

Rebecca Warr, who was OSHA safety compliance officer with the N.C. Department of Labor in 2008, said hold-open latches are allowed at land fueling stations, but not at marinas.

The regulation has been in effect since 1969, she said.

Coppick, who worked at Westport Marina, was killed on June 10, 2008, while refueling an 80-foot charter boat. Suits against the marina owner and boat owner were settled out of court.

Warr said investigations of the explosion and of Petroleum Equipment & Services began June 11 and ended Nov. 24, 2008.

Under cross-examination from the defendants’ attorney, John Holden, Warr said the marina was originally built in 1984 and she wasn’t sure what modifications or changes had been made since 1998, when Petroleum Equipment & Services took over operation of the fueling system.

Her final report recommended citations against the boat owner and marina, but not against Petroleum Equipment. Warr later explained that the firm didn’t employ anybody at the marina at the time of the accident and that a six-month statute of limitation for filing a citation had run out.

Last week, Holden told the court a gasoline explosion from a fuel overspill, “sparked by running generators on the boat,” occurred at the marina. The chief medical examiner indicated the cause of Coppick’s death wasn’t from fire, but “from blunt force injury, secondary to the explosion.”

On Monday, Richard Strickland, chief fire code consultant with the N.C. Department of Insurance and office of the State Fire Marshall, said hold-open latches at marinas violated state fire and building codes as of 2002.

The latches add to the potential for fires or explosions to occur, he said.

Also called to the witness stand on Monday was former Westport Marina employee Nicholas Harmon, who started working there in 2005 as a dock hand.

Harmon and Coppick had known each other at East Lincoln High School. According to Harmon, they became top employees in a three-member group called the “A team.” They took pride in a work ethic and providing a high level of customer service, he said.

Harmon described the marina work routine – everything from meeting and greeting boaters to carrying out trash, refilling ice bags and refueling vessels.

When he refueled boats, including the one that later exploded, Harmon testified that no one ever told him that hold-open latches violated state fire and building codes and OSHA regulations.

An attorney for the Coppick estate has told the court the fuel nozzle hold-open latch that Coppick was using didn’t function properly and that at least 30 gallons of gas overflowed.

Harmon said part of the fueling routine was engaging the hold-open latch and then going about other jobs. But he always told someone “to keep an eye on it,” Harmon said.

A large number of boats came into the marina, especially on weekends, and Harmon said there was a push to get them in and out as fast as possible.

“It was like a pit stop in NASCAR,” he said. “Get it done and get out of here.”

On the front of his suit, Harmon wore a ribbon in memory of Coppick, a keepsake from his friend’s funeral.

Harmon recalled how he and Coppick were promoted to assistant dock managers.

“He was a top-notch guy,” said Harmon. “He did things in an efficient manner.”

The two friends socialized away from work and Coppick’s “No. 1 priority was his family,” Harmon said.

Coppick was a student at N.C. State and “he was enjoying it,” he said.

As for the future, “He wanted Westport,” Harmon said. “He wanted a marina.”

DePriest: 704-868-7745
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