23 Feb 2021

Details emerge of extreme precautions taken to remove body from cargo ship in New Plymouth

7:20 am on 23 February 2021

Details have been revealed about the difficult recovery of a man's body, who died at sea while on a cargo vessel travelling to New Plymouth - described as "PPE on steroids".

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Port Taranaki. Photo: Taranaki Regional Council

Amid Covid-19 concerns, a specialist search and rescue team extracted the man from the Hong Kong-registered Yangtze Happiness when it docked at Port Taranaki last June.

The bulk carrier had been on its way from Papua New Guinea to New Zealand when the 35-year-old crew member first complained of a sore throat on 4 June, and was given antibiotics.

The engineer, who was from Wuhan in China, had visited Singapore and various ports in the Middle East, Europe, the UK and the US in the previous nine months.

By 7 June his condition had deteriorated and he was running a fever.

He died suddenly the next day, still at sea.

Sergeant Terry Johnson, who is in charge of policing at Port Taranaki and had been in contact with the vessel along with other New Zealand authorities, said the moment the man died instructions were relayed to the vessel's skipper.

"The room the deceased was in was sealed. He was placed in a HAZMAT body bag and was then located in a chiller on the ship.

"Our thoughts at the time was to preserve the body in some kind of shape or form, the best option was to place him in the chiller."

Sergeant Johnson said other symptoms the man displayed such as skin lesions and ulcers were not consistent with Covid-19, but health authorities could not rule the virus out.

He said when the Yangtze Happiness docked at Port Taranaki on 14 June, the Taranaki District Health Board advised him to throw the "full monty" at it in terms of Covid-19 precautions.

Sgt Terry Johnson

Sergeant Terry Johnson. Photo: RNZ

Sergeant Johnson duly sent in the search and rescue team's Disaster Victim Identification unit.

"They're very equipped around HAZMAT. They've got the proper gear. The PPE is 'PPE on steroids', if you know what I mean.

"So... we had a team, which was a team of four, and basically their role was to recover the body. None of the ship's crew was allowed to leave the vessel."

An additional three CIB detectives in full protective equipment went onboard to investigate the man's death, while a paramedic waited on the wharf in PPE to issue a death certificate, before a hearse whisked the body away to the forensic mortuary in Waikato.

All up about 100 people knew about the operation.

Phoenix Shipping manager Billy Preston handled the Yangtze Flourish's visit to Port Taranaki.

Phoenix Shipping manager Billy Preston. Photo: RNZ / Robin Martin

Phoenix Shipping managing director Bill Preston, who acted for the vessel's principle agent Wilhelmsen when it berthed in New Plymouth, said it was a surreal scene.

"I can't remember exactly how many people were on the wharf but there was quite a few dressed up in PPE gear head to toe. There was certainly a lot of people.

"I believe that the reason behind it was 'cause it was considered as a crime scene until investigated."

Preston said it was a difficult day for everyone concerned, including the crew who would've been mates with the dead man.

Pathologist Dr Michael Dray performed the post mortem and identified the cause of death as sepsis caused by Klebsiella pneumoniae bacteria.

"Typically, this infection arises in people with other illness and compromised immunity. It is uncertain whether this is true of the crew member. It causes a range of infections that include pneumonia, urinary tract infections and sepsis. It is also known to be resistant to the penicillin group of antibiotics."

Coroner Brigitte Windley agreed with Dr Dray and recorded natural causes as the cause of death.

She did not require an inquest.

Maritime Union national secretary Craig Harrison said the death of crew was more common than one might think.

"A lot of people won't realise that people do pass away at sea just like people pass away on the job of a heart attack or something like that.

"And when you think about the shipping fleet around the world there's thousands of people employed on a daily basis, so it can happen. I suppose in this case it's come a bit more under the microscope because of Covid."

Harrison said Covid-19 had been a problem on some cargo ships.

"Actually there's been a couple of ships towards the middle of last year in Western Australia that were required to quarantine by the port authorities in Western Australia where they've identified on the vessel, so then they've made the ship lay up on anchor and they sent out the required medical personnel."

Meanwhile, Sergeant Johnson was at a loss to explain why the public were not informed of the incident.

"Things were not normal, and maybe that media liaison wasn't there like it is in normal time, but you know we probably didn't jump on Paritutu [Rock] and yell out 'hey this is what we are doing', but we don't normally do that anyway. But somewhere along the line there may have been a bit of a breakdown in communication with media."

Sergeant Johnson said police generally did not want to generate undue fear in the community, and there were signs early on that this was not a Covid-19 case.

He said from his point of view the operation was a success. He took pride in the fact police were able to contact the crew member's family and organise for his body and personal affects to be repatriated to China.

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