A stevedore was thinking of his family and children and feared he would die as he slipped into unconsciousness in the fume-filled hold of a logging ship at Napier Port, he has told a Napier court.
Iakopo Sagote was one of six men who were overcome by fumes as they entered Hold 4 of the Nord Yilan on the evening of April 30, 2018.
His foreman, James Oliver, described to the court how he looked down into the smoke-filled hold and calculated how long Sagote could survive. Unable to reach his workmate by radio, Oliver descended into the hold himself and was, in turn, rendered unconscious by the fumes.
The men gave evidence on Monday after the national regulatory authority Maritime New Zealand took their employer, port logistics company ISO Ltd, to court over the incident.
Maritime NZ has charged ISO Ltd under Section 48 of the Health and Safety at Work Act 2015. That section makes it an offence to expose a person to the risk of serious illness or death by failing to perform a duty.
The trial before Judge Geoff Rea is scheduled to last all week in the Napier District Court. Claire Paterson appears for Maritime NZ, assisted by Andy Luck. Fletcher Pilditch, QC, appears for ISO Ltd with Edwin Boshier.
Sagote's job was to operate a digger in the hold to stack logs lowered into the vessel by crane.
He described climbing down a ladder into the hold and smelling "gas or fumigants or something like that". At the bottom of the ladder, about 4 metres down, he took off his jacket to cover his face.
Fearing that he might pass out and fall if he tried to climb back up the ladder, Sagote decided to walk several metres across the hold to where the digger was positioned, equipped with a radio with which he could call for help.
"I was feeling dizzy and I couldn't breathe. I started to faint before I got to the digger," Sagote said.
He just made it to the digger but then started to panic. He got into the digger and started it to power up the radio set but couldn't find the right channel and began to lose consciousness.
"I thought I was going to die in there because I couldn't get hold of anyone. The last thing I was thinking was of my family and my kids," he said.
The foreman, Oliver, was called to the hold by a crane driver who reported it was full of white smoke. Oliver could just see the digger arm over the smoke. He could see that the digger had been unhooked from the crane which had lowered it into the hold.
Fearing that Sagote would soon become brain-dead from a lack of oxygen, Oliver decided to act.
"I made the decision to go in and try to hook the digger back up to the hook."
Within 30 seconds in the hold, however, he too became affected by fumes and lack of oxygen.
"Obviously you feel like you're drunk and you're going to fall over. I don't remember anything after that."
The next thing he knew, he regained consciousness on the deck of the ship.
"The first thing I wanted to do was hug Kopo, because he was alive," Oliver said.
The court heard that the hatches on Hold 4 were closed when the stevedores began their shift. Oliver had to get the ship's crew to open them.
Claire Paterson, for Maritime NZ, said there had been a long-standing awareness, in New Zealand and overseas, of the hazards of confined spaces. She said that in cargo holds containing logs, oxygen could be depleted and the atmosphere become toxic with carbon dioxide and other gases.
"ISO knew that, and knew that it had to take steps to guard against that potential hazard."
Fletcher Pilditch for ISO, however, said that the court would hear no evidence that this situation had happened before, and it could not have been predicted. It was an unprecedented event for the company.
The standard practice internationally was to leave the hatches open for half an hour.
By taking the prosecution, Maritime NZ was imposing a new set of standards which had not previously been applied by the industry, Pilditch said.
The trial is continuing.