UPDATE, July 22, 2017: Citing Reveal’s February investigation, three senators have recently called on the Justice Department to open a criminal investigation into VT Halter Marine, a shipbuilding company in Mississippi. The former head of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts have also called on the Navy to stop contracting with dangerous shipbuilders. We also have an update on Bram Ates, one of the workers featured in the original investigation, who died in June. Police are investigating.

The U.S. Navy spends billions of dollars each year building and repairing ships. But how safe are the shipyards where that work is done? Reporter Jennifer Gollan and producer Stan Alcorn investigate how lax safety has been allowed to persist at shipyards that thrive on military contracts. Their story takes an in-depth look at a tugboat explosion at VT Halter Marine, a shipbuilding company in Mississippi.

President Donald Trump has called for an increase in the size of the Navy fleet, from 274 ships to at least 350. What will that increase mean for shipbuilders, and will taxpayers be getting their money’s worth? Reporter Sukey Lewis explores one of the newest warships in the Navy’s fleet and whether it’s living up to expectations.

And finally, we head to the Pacific Ocean, where a man whose job it was to make sure fishing boats play by the rules vanished mysteriously at sea. Fisheries observers monitor the fish that boats haul in from the ocean to help prevent overfishing. This sometimes puts them at odds with the crew, and in recent years, there’s been an increase in reports of abuse and harassment of observers. Our story is from Reveal’s Tom Knudson.

Dig Deeper

  • Read: The deadly danger of Trump’s naval buildup plan
  • Read: Trump’s Navy secretary nominee vows to crack down on safety lapses
  • Watch: A Contract with Danger
  • Share your story.


Support for Reveal is provided by The Reva and David Logan Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and Mary and Steven Swig.

  • Camerado-Lightning, “True Game (Reveal show theme)” from n/a (Cut-Off Man Records)
  • The Doors, “Ships with Sails” from Other Voices (Elektra)
  • Jahzzar, “Vault” from HiFI City Tales (n/a)
  • Blue Dot Sessions, “SuzyB” from Cloud Harbor (n/a)
  • Blue Dot Sessions, “Watermarks” from Crab Shack (n/a)
  • Blue Dot Sessions, “Insatiable Toad” from Origami (n/a)
  • Blue Dot Sessions, “Basurera” from Marisala (n/a)
  • Lee Rosevere, “Dreaming” from The Ambient Baby (Kazoomzoom)
  • Blue Dot Sessions, “Dropped Ticket” from Crab Shack (n/a)
  • Modest Mouse, “Missed the Boat” from We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank (Epic)
  • C Scott, “Stage Theory” from Stage Theory (Beats vol 3) (n/a)
  • C SCott, “Don’t Crush That Dwarf” from Stage Theory (Beats vol 3) (n/a)
  • Broke For Free, “Quit Bitching” from Layers (n/a)
  • Thundercat, “Boat Cruise” from The Golden Age of Apocalypse (Brainfeeder)
  • Kate Simko, “Tevatron Dream” from Music from The Atom Smashers (Ghostly International)
  • Kate Simko, “Trouble Brewing” from Music from The Atom Smashers (Ghostly International)
  • Kate Simko, “Quiet Daydram (Intro)” from Music from The Atom Smashers (Ghostly International)
  • Gold Panda, “My Father In Hong Kong 1961” from Half Of Where You Live (Ghostly International)
  • Kate Simko, “Trouble Brewing” from Music from The Atom Smashers (Ghostly International)
  • Blue Dot Sessions, “LaBranche” from Bayou Birds (n/a)


Reveal transcripts are produced by a third-party transcription service and may contain errors. Please be aware that the official record for Reveal’s radio stories is the audio.

 Section 1 of 5          [00:00:00 – 00:10:04]
(NOTE: speaker names may be different in each section)


Al Letson:From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I’m Al Letson … Every year, the US Navy spends 15 billion dollars on ships.


Speaker 2:I’m Kristen E. Maury, may God bless the ship and all who sail in her.


Al Letson:Aircraft carriers, submarines, destroyers. They are the embodiment of American power but before that there’s steel and aluminum welded together by blue-collar workers. In sometimes dangerous circumstances.



Joey Petty:


I was, like, going under water diving, ran out of air. You know, you can’t breathe underwater but that’s what you gotta do to feed your family in this corner of the world.


Al Letson:On this episode of Reveal, deadly ship yards.



Speaker 4:


Support for Reveal comes from Square Space. Create a beautiful website with Square Space’s all-in-one platform. There’s nothing to install, patch or upgrade. Ever. Square Space provides award-winning 24/7 customer support. For a free trail and ten percent off your first purchase, visit squarespace.com/Reveal. Make your next move with a beautiful website from Square Space.


Al Letson:From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I’m Al Letson. On the Friday before Thanksgiving, late afternoon 2009, Joey Petty had a job nobody wanted. He had to go into this tugboat the size of a large house and paint the crawlspace underneath the engine room.



Joey Petty:


You know, it’s like a two foot by two foot horseshoe shaped tank goes right under the engines and they got holes in them you gotta crawl through about the size of five gallon buckets so I’m a small person so guess who always got stuck in the little places?



Al Letson:


He knew it was gonna be uncomfortable. Crawling around on his hands and knees, dragging a paint hose with a spray-gun at the end. He also knew it was gonna be dangerous. He had a plastic onesie and goggles to keep the paint off his skin but in a confined space like that, he’d also need industrial fans. Even with a respirator, the fumes could build up in his lungs.


Joey Petty:You know, it was, like, going under water diving, ran out of air. You know, you can’t breathe underwater. Same way with painting.



Al Letson:


But when Joey checks out the engine room, there aren’t any fans. So he goes to his boss Danny Cobb.


Joey Petty:And I told Danny Cobb, I said, “I’m not sprayin’ that without no ventilation.” He said, “Well, if you don’t spray it you’re fired.”


Al Letson:Joey doesn’t want to get fired. On the Gulf Coast of Mississippi, shipyard jobs pay some of the highest wages for workers without a college degree, but he also doesn’t want to breathe in toxic paint fumes. So, he scrounges a fan from another ship and walks down the dock to the tugboat.



Joey Petty:


And as I was stepping on the boat it just, “Boom, boom, boom!” Three big flashes, explosions.


Al Letson:For a moment, he just stands there and then people start to stream out of the boat on fire.


Joey Petty:Young Jiminy, he come out there hollering, “Help me! Help me!” And his skin was just dripping off of him. A guy named Robert, he was coming off, he had a head on fire. I said, “Man, you need to put your head out!” He just walked on out the gate. Didn’t grab his hard-hat or clothes or nothing, he just left.



Al Letson:


The two men still inside the boat were dead … Joey was a shipyard painter and sand-blaster for 28 years all across the country. So we asked him, if he made a list of all those shipyards from the safest to the most dangerous, where would he rank this shipyard owned by V.T. Halter?



Joey Petty:


V.T. Halter, they would be between half and three quarter down the list. They not the worst one by no means. I’ve seen some bad places but that’s what you gotta do to feed your family in this corner of the world.


Al Letson:This corner of the world. The Gulf Coast of Mississippi and Alabama is kept afloat economically by the ship-building industry but the ship builders are kept afloat by you and me and all the other US taxpayers because most of the money going to companies like V.T. Halter, billions of dollars each year, comes from contracts with the US Military. Reveal’s Jennifer Gollan has been following those billions, digging into how the US Navy awards contracts to ship builders and asking if those contracts make workers like Joey more safe or put them in harms way? Here’s Jennifer.



Jennifer Gollan:


The first guy that Joey saw running off the boat, the guy who’s skin was melting, that was Bram Ates. He actually survived and he’s the key to understanding what happened in the boat that day and what happened after. He’s now divorced and living at his mom’s house in Moss Point, Mississippi on a street that dead-ends at a swamp.



Stan Alcorn:


You must be Bram.


Jennifer Gollan:I met him there with my colleague Stan Alcorn.


Stan Alcorn:Stan.


Jennifer Gollan:This is Stan, how are you?


Bram Ates:Good, how about yourself?


Jennifer Gollan:Good, good thank you.


Bram is 36 but he carries himself like someone much younger. He slouches, shuffles his feet, and he’s always drinking root beer.



Stan Alcorn:


Having a morning root beer?


Bram Ates:Yeah. Hell yeah.


Jennifer Gollan:Is that your thing?


He shows us around the yard where there are these pit bulls chained to posts. Lola, Dixie, and Achilles. They look ferocious but they’re actually quite sweet. Achilles stands up on his hind legs and gives Bram a big hug.


Bram Ates:Who do you love? Who do you love?


Jennifer Gollan:And then we go inside to meet Bram’s mom, Liz.



Stan Alcorn:




Liz Ates:Don’t look at his eyes too close. We got three families combined.


Jennifer Gollan:Ten people live in her small three bedroom house.


Liz Ates:But I’ve still got a couch free because Bram sleeps in the recliner.


Jennifer Gollan:Every adult in this house, Bram, his mom, his step-dad, his brother, and his sister-in-law, they all worked in the shipyards so they know it’s a dangerous job but nothing could have prepared Liz for what she saw at the burn unit that day.


[00:06:30]She saw her son with burns over half of his body. And his head, it was severely swollen.


Liz Ates:When I first saw him I thought, “My god! His head looked like a basketball.” And I thought, “Son, you not gonna survive this. You not gonna live.”


Jennifer Gollan:What did the doctors tell you?


Liz Ates:Well, they kept telling me it was a day to day thing. That’s all they told me. They did tell me that he can never hold a job in the sun again or in heat or anything like that because he’ll have a sun-stroke and he’ll die before he knows it.



Jennifer Gollan:


That’s because the burns on his arms, legs, back, and chest left him unable to sweat. The doctors also told Liz that because of his head injury, Bram would have short-term memory problems.


Liz Ates:Like I tell him, “Bram, go feed the dogs.” And he’ll walk out there with the bucket and he’ll stand there and look around and he’ll set the bucket down and he’s looking around and you can tell he’s confused because he can’t remember what he was gonna do and I say, “Go feed the dogs, Bram.” And, “Oh, yeah.” And he’ll pick the bucket up, he’ll start and he’ll look around again and I’ll sit there and I’ll laugh I thought, “Them dogs are never gonna get fed today.”



Jennifer Gollan:


That afternoon we went with Bram back to the shipyard. We also took Joey Petty, the painter who witnessed the explosion.



Joey Petty:


Glad to see you doing good, brother.


Bram Ates:Glad to be here.


Jennifer Gollan:It was the first time they had seen each other since the accident.


Joey Petty:You blessed, that’s for sure. The lord was looking out for you.


Bram Ates:Lord there is a bomb here.


Jennifer Gollan:V.T. Halter wouldn’t let us tour the shipyard so we chartered a boat off the Pascagoula River, passing shipyards left and right where both Joey and Bram had worked. And then …



Bram Ates:


That’s the death yard!


Jennifer Gollan:… the death yard, Bram calls it. V.T. Halter’s shipyard in Escatawba. The day of the explosion, Bram and Joey were working on a tugboat being built for a private shipping company. It was floating right here next to this dock. Bram was getting the engine room ready so Joey could paint it. He was using tape and aluminum foil to cover all the valves and pipes. At the same time, other workers were prepping the crawlspace underneath the engine room.


[00:09:00]Bram couldn’t see them but he started to smell the paint thinner they were cleaning with. It was wafting out of the manhole near his feet.


Bram Ates:That’s whenever I come and told him they need to do something about that smell. It was making me nauseous. Making me sick to my stomach. I shouldn’t be smelling it out here like that.


Jennifer Gollan:By law, someone should have been testing the air in the crawlspace but no one did. It should have been ventilated with powerful fans but it wasn’t. So, the paint thinner fumes were building up in the air to what investigators later determined was more than 600 times the legal limit.



Bram Ates:


They said just a snap of your fingers like that, just the frictions from your fingers right there could have caused that explosion.


Jennifer Gollan:So they should have been using explosion proof lights. Lights that have barriers to isolate heat and sparks, which keeps them from igniting any flammable vapors but a guy working with Bram told him the men underneath were using the kind of lights you might find in your garage. Bram walked back to the manhole.


 Section 1 of 5          [00:00:00 – 00:10:04]
 Section 2 of 5          [00:10:00 – 00:20:04]
(NOTE: speaker names may be different in each section)


Speaker 1:Garage. Bram walked back to the manhole.


Bram:I told them I saw it, now give me them … Boom. I was trying to tell him to give me them lights and get out, but they gave me a light, all right.


Speaker 1:An orange fireball shot out of the hole. Bram instinctively put his hands down to protect himself and then he pulled them up to shield his face.


Bram:That replays in my mind constantly, just like a skipping CD. You know how a CD will skip on one word? That’s just what it does, all day everyday. It never goes away, never stops. I had nightmares for a while, had a lot of anger issues there for a while. I pushed my wife away, I pushed my kids away, pushed everybody away from me. Until I finally learned how deal with it and how to live with it. And people wonder why I don’t smile the way I used to smile. It’s kind of hard to force a smile sometimes. You know what I mean? You replay that through your mind constantly, all day everyday, I’m tormented 24/7. It never goes away.



Speaker 1:


On the boat, Joey tells Bram something he hadn’t heard before.





Do you see them rusty old boxes out there? They got paint on them, different colors? Those are game boxes.


Speaker 1:Game boxes look like giant toolboxes. They’re scattered around the shipyard. Joey tells Bram that some of them contained unused explosion-proof lights and fans that could’ve prevented the explosion. But Joey says their boss, Danny Cobb, kept those game boxes under lock and key.


Bram:He wouldn’t let nobody use them?


Joey:Because if he were to use them, they get messed up, he’d had to order more and it come out the paint budget, and that would interfere with his bonus.





That really pisses me off. He’s more worried about his bonus than he was saving our lives.


Speaker 1:Over the phone, Danny Cobb denied Joey’s story saying it was crazy before hanging up, but a second painter, David Gillette, independently confirmed it. To really understand what happened to Bram, I felt like I needed to see another shipyard in action, so I found one nearby that was building a very similar tugboat. Steiner Shipyard.


[00:12:30]It’s a family-owned shipyard and it’s fairly small compared to VT Halter, but there are cranes swinging huge pipes and workers welding together the skeleton of a ferry. I speak with Steiner Shipyard’s owner, Russell Steiner, inside the engine room of the tugboat. The whole time, dozens of men in hardhats are working all around us, balancing on wooden planks.





We’re installing engines, we’re doing all the electrical work for the engines and the alarm systems. All of this almost has to be completed at one time.


Speaker 1:Next to us there’s a manhole down to the bottom of the boat, a lot like where the explosion started at VT Halter. My colleague Stan asks if someone was going to clean down there with paint thinner.


Stan:Would they take a bucket of paint thinner-





I don’t know of us ever cleaning with paint thinner.


Speaker 1:Russell says when they work with a chemical that’s toxic or flammable, they do it with proper fans and explosion-proof lights, but in a cramped, hard to ventilate space like the one below us …


Russell:Usually maybe a vacuum cleaner and wire brushes would be what we would be working on, but we just wouldn’t go inside [inaudible 00:13:51] and put a man with paint thinner.



Speaker 1:


When VT Halter failed to test the air for flammable gas, when they failed to use explosion-proof lights and ventilation, they were breaking federal law and the official enforcing that law, that was this guy.


Clyde:Good afternoon, welcome to Mississippi.


Speaker 1:Thank you so much. For 23 years, Clyde Payne was in charge of the local office of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration or OSHA.





And we oversaw the safety and health of several million workers here in Mississippi.


Speaker 1:For Clyde’s team of fewer than 20 safety inspectors, making sure that all these workers were safe was like trying to hold back the ocean.


Clyde:Because these facilities aren’t getting frequent inspections. Maybe once a year, maybe every few years, but to inspect all the facilities, OSHA is not staffed for that.


Speaker 1:Instead Clyde and his team of investigators are generally reactive. They go in after something bad happens. He and his team went to VT Halter the day after the explosion.





The physical damage was not as massive as you might think, but you just feel the emotion of the loss of life in the air.


Speaker 1:For months they would come by, collect evidence and interview employees, but Joey Petty, the painter who saw the whole thing happened, says they never heard his side of the story. Every time they appeared, he says his boss Danny Cobb would send him to work at another VT Halter shipyard.





That was pretty easy to figure out. I’m not a smart man but I’m not a dumb man. OSHA’s walking through the gate, you get a phone call, “Hey, you got to go.” Oh man, don’t play me for a fool, I know exactly what’s going on, you don’t want me talking to him, just say so.


Speaker 1:What do you think they were afraid you would tell OSHA?


Joey:The truth.


Speaker 1:Even without Joey’s testimony, what OSHA found was damning. VT Halter admitted they didn’t just break the law, they broke it 17 times. For 12 of those violations, including the failure to use ventilation and explosion-proof lights, they either broke the law on purpose or acted with “plain indifference to employee safety.” The Secretary of Labor at the time, Hilda Solis, called the explosion horrific and preventable. The company had to pay a fine of more than $860,000. VT Halter declined numerous requests for an interview, but Clyde Payne says the fines and bad press should give them an incentive to clean up their act.





I think in the long run, they’ll find themselves less profitable. They will lose business from some companies.


Speaker 1:But VT Halter didn’t lose business from one major customer, the US Navy. Just a month after the accident, VT Halter won a navy contract worth 87 million dollars to build a survey vessel. It was named the Maury and christened by Lisa Jackson, the former EPA Administrator under President Obama.





I christen the Maury, may God bless the ship and all who sail in it.


Speaker 1:During my investigation, I found this was a recurring pattern. Serious injuries and deadly accidents followed by large federal contracts. Since Bram’s accident, the Navy’s given VT Halter more than 340 million dollars in contracts. The money flowed in, even as another worker was killed when the lid of a sandblasting pot tore into his face and another was blinded in a crane accident. And that’s just one company.


[00:17:30]Over that same period, the federal government has awarded at least 91 billion dollars in contracts to shipbuilders cited for serious safety lapses. I wanted to find out why this was happening, so I set up a call with NAVSEA, the part of the Navy that actually oversees ship construction.





So good morning to you, it’s early out there.


Speaker 1:Yes, good morning to you guys. The call was with the press guy, Dale Ng and two engineers, Tracy Bala and Mike Adams. I started by asking how they oversee safety after a contract is signed. The operations manual for NAVSEA staffers says they don’t enforce federal workplace safety laws in private shipyards. Is that right?





The ship builder has the responsibility to abide by all federal laws and it’s specified in the terms of the contract.


Speaker 1:They seem to have two answers to all of my questions. One, was that they pay attention to safety all the time. The other, was that the safety of workers employed by private contractors isn’t their responsibility. Here’s Tracy’s colleague, Mike Adams.


Mike:It’s not that we’re saying, “Hey, we’re not taking care of the shipyard workers.” That’s not our job. The shipyard takes care of their own workers, they treat their own workers. In fact, the shipyard has massive safety programs, all of them. They emphasize it all day long, if they catch one of us walking on their shipyard doing that [inaudible 00:19:12], they’ll kick us off the yard.



Speaker 1:


So if you’re not … If NAVSEA doesn’t have an enforcement role, then if a safety hazard emerged, how would it be treated? Can you take me through each step?





I want to go off the record.


Speaker 1:They did this a couple of times. They also put me on hold twice.


Dale:Can you just give us a second to talk about this real quick?


Speaker 1:Sure. I still wanted to know how they awarded contracts to companies like VT Halter in the first place. I asked them if they considered a company safety record at all, but the most I got was this.


Dale:I think to answer your question about safety influencing future contracts, for us to sit here and say that it … you didn’t do this,


 Section 2 of 5          [00:10:00 – 00:20:04]
 Section 3 of 5          [00:20:00 – 00:30:04]
(NOTE: speaker names may be different in each section)


Man 1:You didn’t do this [inaudible 00:20:04] angles, or you didn’t do this BAE therefor, no, you can’t build the next, I don’t know. I think that’s …


Man 2:We’re actually [inaudible 00:20:11] a more likely safety scenario is that OSHA increases standards.


Jennifer:In other words, the Navy is saying “Safety, that’s OSHA’s job”, but think about VT Halter. After the tug boat explosion, OSHA fined them hundreds of thousands of dollars, but the Navy gave them a contract for more than a hundred times that amount. As long as the Navy keeps handing out contracts like that, shipyards don’t have much of a financial incentive to become less dangerous.


[00:20:30]I wanted to ask the Navy about specific contracts and companies, but after telling me there were officials who talk specifics in a second call


Man 1:I think, maybe the best thing to do is schedule another interview.


Jennifer:A Navy spokesperson told me no one was available. Whatever the justification, Clyde Payne, the former OSHA director in Mississippi, says “When the Navy contracts with companies like VT Halter, it sends a wrong message.”


Woman 2:When the government doesn’t take its business some place else, [inaudible 00:21:10]. We’re not gonna measure you by your safety and health performance, and if we don’t step up and measure companies by their safety and health performance as a part of the contract, then we’re not doing the right thing.


Jennifer:While the Navy was contracting with VT Halter for hundreds of millions of dollars, you may wonder how much VT Halter was paying the survivors of that tug boat explosion. In the case of [inaudible 00:21:34], the answer is zero, but not for lack of trying. He talked to personal injury lawyer [inaudible 00:21:41]



Woman 2:


Would you have chosen to sue VT Halter, if you could have?


Bram:Oh yes. Absolutely, I would have. Absolutely, we would have.


Woman 2:Why?


Bram:They’re responsible for this. It was their solvent. It was their rags. It was their buckets. It was their non explosion proof lights. It was their hull. It was their job, and they told the guys what to do. Of course I would have sued Halter Marine.



Woman 2:


But why didn’t you?


Bram:Well, there’s a bar, but legally, you can’t do that.


Jennifer:The law makes it almost impossible for injury workers to sue their employers. Instead, payments from workers compensation insurance are supposed to take care of them. Bram, he got a hundred thousand dollars in workers comp. Roughly what he’d make in three years, working full time in shipyards, but remember, he can’t work in the heat anymore, and roofing and shipbuilding are pretty much the only work he’s ever done. So he’s trying to use that hundred thousand to set up the rest of his life.[crosstalk 00:22:39] He took me see how.


So is that the [inaudible 00:22:42] or …


A short drive from his [crosstalk 00:22:45] mom’s house, we come to a neighborhood of small houses and RVs.


Bram:When I was there, [inaudible 00:22:49]





They’re all on stilts. The whole area is flooded during the rainy season, and you need a boat to get home. The people here call them “camps”. Bram’s does seem temporary.





I haven’t been here.


Jennifer:Inside, the drywall is unfinished, and the electricity is out. He can’t afford the power bill. Outside, beams holding up the floor are falling apart, and a huge tree is leaning on the roof.


How much is it gonna take to fix this place up?


Bram:Probably about ten thousand.


man 4:What would it take for you to have ten thousand dollars? When do you see having the money to finish it?


Bram:I don’t, really. [inaudible 00:23:32]





He can’t work. He can’t sue, and the only fines VT Halter paid for the explosion went to the government, not the survivors. That hundred thousand dollars in workers compensation, it’s all Bram got, and he spent all of it.


When you think back to the accident, Bram, do you ever feel like I could have gotten more, I should have gotten more?


Bram:Yeah, I should have gotten more. Yeah, I should have gotten more.[inaudible 00:24:02]





And why isn’t it done?


Bram:[inaudible 00:24:05] the money to do it. By the time I bought everything else that I needed, [inaudible 00:24:12] furniture, it was gone. The money was gone, quick, and now I’m broke, with nothing. Makes me sick to my stomach. It’ll get straight one day. Sooner or later. Something’s gotta give.





Two months after we visited, Bram is still sleeping on his mom’s recliner. VT Halter on the other hand, they just won a contract from the state of Virginia. They’re building a ferry for 16 and half million dollars.


Al:That was Jennifer Gallen, and the story was produced by Stan Elkhorn. For more, including a short film about another VT Halter worker who miraculously survived a crane accident, go to our website revealnews.org. Those tens of billions of dollars in Navy contracts we talked about? Well, that number might be about to go up, because President Donald Trump has promised to expand the nation’s fleet. Next, we go aboard what was supposed to be a ship of the future, and later in the show, we head to the Pacific Ocean, where a man who’s job it is to help make sure fishing boats play by the rules, goes missing at sea.



Woman 3:


We’re now on a boat, where there’s two hundred crew, and you. It’s easy to just get rid of you, to do what they need to do to make money. It’s open water, and it’s a war for money for tuna. So, life is respected differently out there.





You’re listening to Reveal. For the Center of Investigative Reporting and PRX.


woman 4:Support for Reveal comes from Audible, presenting Ponzi Supernova. This original audio documentary series tells you the story you think you know, [inaudible 00:26:09] legendary fraudster is sent to prison, for orchestrating the largest Ponzi scheme in history, but that’s definitely not the full story. Drawn from hours of unheard conversations with Bernie Behind Bars, and interviews with SCC, FBI, and the victims of his scheme, Ponzi Supernova takes you on a fascinating journey into the dark interior of our financial system. A six part Audible original series, Ponzi Supernova is available on channels. To listen, go to audible.com/ponzi. Audible and Amazon Prime members listen free.





Hey listeners. Reveal’s Lindsay Green-Barber here. Are you the sort of person who stays up late on Friday nights, waiting for Reveal to hit your feed? Well, we’ve got a sweet deal for you. We’re offering up an exclusive first listen of our latest episode, to one new Twitter follower each week. So, if you don’t already follow us there, you should consider it. Every Friday, we’ll randomly select one new follower from the previous seven days and send them a password protected link to the next episode of Reveal, before anyone else gets it. We’ve done this twice already, and you could be next. To enter, just open up the Twitter app on your phone, and give us a follow. We’re @Reveal.





From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I’m Al Letson. VT Halter, the company we just heard about, is one of only eight shipyards in the country that builds ships for the Navy. Everything from Massive aircraft carriers to small patrol boats, to nuclear attack submarines, and these companies could soon be winning even more contracts. President Trump is pledging to expand the nation’s fleet, big time, from it’s current 275 to 350. Now to meet that goal, the Navy would have to spend at least 50 percent more on ships than it does right now. Up to 25 billion dollars a year, according to the Congressional Budget office. Right now, US Naval ships are all over the world. From the South China Sea to the Middle East. When their mission is over, many of them will come here, to the San Diego Naval Base. The day we visit starts off rainy with things clearing up by early afternoon. The massive gray hulls along the pier gleam in the sunlight. An American flag snaps overhead. Naval officers salute one another as they pass by.


[00:28:30]Reporter Suki Lewis is here to check out what the Navy has touted as one of the most versatile ships in the fleet.


Suki:The USS Independence is a new class of ship, called a Littoral Combat Ship. It promised to be a swiss army knife of boats. Sleek, agile, and deadly. It looks totally Sci-fi. More space ship than war ship. The sharp aluminum nose juts out into the San Diego Bay like a giant, gray razor that angles into a wedge toward the back. The underside lifts out of the water like two wings. So, from the front, I can see straight through to the back. A rotating 57mm. gun sits atop the ship. It can hit a target more than ten miles away. I walk up a narrow metal walkway into the ship.



man 6:


Morning, Welcome aboard.


Suki:Good morning. This is so –


man 6:Hi. Nice to meet you, I’m Doug Maher. Commanding officer. Erin Bacon, First Lieutenant. Welcome aboard the USS Independence.


Suki:Lieutenant Erin Bacons a slim 27 year old, with brown hair tucked under her cap. As the only female crew member, she gets her very own bathroom and bunk. As we pass through, I notice some light reading on her desk. Ancient Roman philosophy.


[00:30:00]Are you reading Seneca?


Erin:Yes [inaudible 00:30:02].


Suki:Erin loves the name-


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Sookie Lewis:Are you reading Seneca?




Sookie Lewis:Erin loves the navy, and she loves this ship. While she’s only been on the Independence for a few weeks, she spent most of her two and a half years in the service on littoral combat ships like this one. Littoral means coastal. These boats were built to fight in shallow water.


Erin:They’re incredibly fast, so it’s really fun to drive. So I get to actually hold the stick in my hand and drive the ship myself. And the faster you go with these ships, you kind of lift up out of the water.



Sookie Lewis:


So how fast do you go?


Erin:A little slower than a really fast speedboat that you see zipping through the water.


Sookie Lewis:Erin walks me through a big open bay that’s maybe twice the size of a high school gym, where they store and swap out different mission packages. These are modules that each have a different function. Destroying mines. Fighting surface boats and attacking submarines. It’s a unique concept, but it didn’t come without its engineering challenges. So, as the tour wraps up, I have to ask Erin.


Sookie Lewis:Have there been any major engineering problems with this ship? [inaudible 00:31:08].





The class as a whole, for us, has had some pretty well publicized engineering problems, but every time I’ve been on board we’ve had a lot of success and been able to operate at full power and everything. It’s been very effective.


Sookie Lewis:I say goodbye to the first lieutenant. She’s shipping out to Singapore soon. But the USS Independence isn’t going anywhere. It’s staying behind for testing.



Al Letson:


That’s reporter Sookie Lewis in San Diego. Those engineering problems she mentioned are a really big deal. In fact, even before these futuristic ships hit the water, they had major issues. GOP Senator John McCain held a hearing about the ships in December.


John McCain:Taxpayers have paid for and are still paying for 26 ships that have demonstrated next to no combat capability. This is unacceptable, and this committee wants to know who is responsible and who has been held accountable.



Michelle Mackin:


So what we’re left with now is the fact that these ships have little chance of survival in a battle space.


Al Letson:That’s Michelle Mackin of the Government Accountability Office. She testified before Congress about boats like the USS Independence. She says: “All that unique capability they were supposed to deliver,”



Michelle Mackin:


That was over-promising. They cannot operate independently in a combat scenario, and the modular swapping of the mission packages has not panned out either. All of the promises the Navy made to convince Congress to fund this program have really degraded over time.


Al Letson:Meanwhile, the original price tag has more than doubled to about 478 million dollars per ship, and almost every ship that’s been delivered has had major defects.



Michelle Mackin:


We’re talking about clutch assembly failures, main propulsion diesel engine was contaminated with seawater. There have been sone hull cracks on some of the ships.


Al Letson:Michelle says: “Not all navy ships are lemons. The U.S. fleet with its advanced technology is the most powerful in the world.” And to stay that way, the Navy says it needs room to innovate, to try new ideas, even if some fail. But Michelle says: “If the Navy were smarter about how it goes about buying new ships, they wouldn’t fail on such a large scale.”



Michelle Mackin:


The biggest problem is really that the Navy tends to begin constructing these ships before the design is fully understood and stable, and that has definitely been the case with the littoral combat ship. I would actually call this program a poster child in a way for what can go wrong with Navy shipbuilding programs.


Al Letson:I just want to go back a little bit, because you said something that kind of doesn’t make sense to me. So the Navy starts putting money into ships that they really don’t know are actually going to work?



Michelle Mackin:


That is correct, and there are lots of reasons why that happens. One is just a desire to get the hulls in the water as soon as possible. Another, quite frankly, is to keep the U.S. shipbuilding industrial base busy.


Al Letson:Does that mean we’re actually giving contracts to private companies just to keep those companies in business? To keep jobs going?



Michelle Mackin:


That is definitely part of the story here, and I think for shipbuilding, it’s particularly apparent because shipbuilding is a lot of jobs. I mean, it just is.


Al Letson:Michelle says: “The other big issues is that the Navy sells Congress on the idea of a new type of ship by underselling how much it’s going to cost.” Remember, littoral combat ships ended up costing double what they were supposed to. Michelle says this is her biggest concern with the proposed expansion of the Navy. Is the public getting a realistic picture of how much it’s going to cost? Are we getting our money’s worth?


[00:35:00]For its part the Navy says it is making changes to how it buys boats so it can build its fleet in the most efficient way possible. But for now, it’s not going to scrap the littoral ship program.


Geordie Harriso:I am absolutely confident that the ships are ready to do the mission sets that we asked them to do.


Al Letson:That’s Commodore Geordie Harrison. He’s in charge of all the littoral combat ships in San Diego. We asked him if he worries about sending sailors out on these boats.



Geordie Harriso:


If I was concerned, I would tell you, I wouldn’t certify the crews in the ships to go. If I am not prepared to go do the mission set, I am not going to send people to go do that for me ill-prepared or ill-resourced. Do we have challenges? Absolutely. What I will tell you is that every class of ship, every warfare system that’s developed by the military, at some stage or another, goes through growing pains.



Al Letson:


According to Harrison, these growing pains are a necessary part of testing out new designs and technologies. “The failures of the littoral combat ship program have already taught the navy a lot,” Harrison says, “and those lessons have value, even if it’s just learning what doesn’t work.”


Al Letson:If you’re like me and you live and work on land, it’s hard to imagine what it’s like when something goes wrong on a ship in the middle of the ocean. Where do you turn? Who do you call? Next, we go to the dangerous waters off the coast of South America, and piece together the mystery of someone who one day vanished from his ship. That’s coming up on Reveal from the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX.



Byard Duncan:


Hey listeners, Byard Duncan here, Reveal’s community manager. I don’t want to give too much away about this next story, so suffice it to say that it’s a gripping account of trouble on the high seas. We’ll have a text story to go along with it on our website this Tuesday, a total page-turner from Reveal’s Tom Knudson, a two-time Pulitzer prize winner.


[00:37:30]We want to give you an advance peek at it. All you have to do is head over to revealnews.org/newsletter and sign up for weekly Reveal newsletter. You’ll get Tom’s story a full day before it’s available online, or anywhere else. Again, that’s revealnews.org/newsletter. Thanks.


Al Letson:From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I’m Al Letson. Our next story takes place hundreds of miles from shore, in the Pacific Ocean. But this time, we’re not aboard a warship. Instead of weapons, this ship is loaded with fish.



Keith Davis:


The song I’d like to play, originally wrote it out at sea here on a transhipment vessel.


Al Letson:In 2012, Keith Davis, a man in his late 30s, sun-tanned, windswept, a little scruffy, videotaped himself sitting down cross-legged on a steel-grated deck of a cargo ship holding a ukulele.



Keith Davis:


#He went down to the sea.


Al Letson:The ship gently bobs as it charges over the silvery blue Pacific, the sun setting in the distance. Keith works on this ship, he’s what’s called a fisheries’ observer and this song is inspired by other observers who died on the job.


Keith Davis:#Times we had fun.


Al Letson:Fishery observers have got to be one of the most important jobs you’ve never heard of. They’re informants, basically. They live onboard commercial fishing boats and carefully document each haul. Their job is to prevent overfishing. They also keep an eye on fishermen who will sometimes try to pass off one type of fish for a more expensive one by cutting off heads and fins. Just one primo tuna can be worth tens of thousands of dollars.


[00:39:00]There’s big money on the line. So, imagine how welcome observers like Keith are on board.


Keith Davis:#Must have been his time to go.


Al Letson:Over the years, hundreds of observers have reported being threatened, intimidated, and sometimes sexually harassed, according to federal government and other sources. Other observers have been offered bribes to look the other way. Over the past decade, at least nine have lost their lives at sea. Foul play is suspected in three cases. A few years after Keith recorded this song memorializing observers, it was playing at his own memorial. Keith disappeared on the job in September of 2015.


[00:40:00]At an annual


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Al:At an annual conference of fishery observers last summer, [inaudible 00:40:06] of Keith’s colleagues gathered to remember him on the beach in San Diego. His father, John Davis, shuffled up to the mic.


John:Anyone who knows Keith knows who he is and loved him dearly, especially me, I’m just devastated by this. Hopefully, good will come out of this convention, and we can save the lives of any observer out there. Let’s get it done. Let’s make observers out there safe.





How did a man, who’s known as a stickler for safety, just disappeared from the ship on a calm day? Did he commit suicide? Did he have a heart attack and fall overboard or as many of Keith’s friends and family have wondered, did somebody kill him? It’s a mystery that Reveal’s Tom Knudson has been trying to solve for months.





The first thing I wanted to do was reconstruct the last day of Keith’s life, so I went to Arizona to meet his father. John Davis showed me some of the notes Keith took on board the ship. Federal investigators have returned them to him.


John:You can see the date here, 09-10-2015.


Tom:8:35 and the Chung Kuo Number 818 is alongside.




Tom:That’s the day that he disappeared. September 10th was just another morning. The winds were light. They were 500 miles off the coast of Peru, and a commercial fishing boat had pulled alongside to offload its catch of tuna.


[00:41:30]Keith’s job was to monitor the transfer of fish onto his refrigerated cargo ship, the Victoria 168. This was the last transshipment of the journey, and it turned out to be Keith’s last trip too.


John:As any parent knows, you just sit there and you’re always wondering what really happened.


Tom:I also sought out Keith’s boss, Bryan Belay. He deploys observers across the Pacific for his company, MRAG Americas.





Yeah. Keith had worked for us as an observer in multiple programs. A very professional individual that really enjoyed the work that he did.


Tom:From what we can tell from Keith’s notes, he finished documenting the fish transfer about 2:30, then he was seen walking to his cabin to put together his paperwork, so he could sign off on the declaration. That’s the official record of the transfer.





When he didn’t show up to sign that declaration, they went to look for him and that’s when they realized that he was missing.


Tom:Immediately, the captain ordered a search. The crew looked everywhere and turned up nothing. The captain sent them back to do a full sweep, a second, and a third time. Nothing. Finally, at 10:30 that night, the captain got on the marine radio and called authorities in Peru. No one answered.


[00:43:00]A chain of communications went out from the Victoria to the ship’s manager in Panama, to Keith’s boss in Alaska, but it wasn’t until 5:25 the next day, more than a full 24 hours later, that word got to the U.S. Coast Guard.


Gus:Yes. Sir, this is Commander Gus Bannon.


Tom:Commander Bannon directed the coast guard search for Keith.


Gus:When we got the call, we had known that the vessel that originally reported it, known as the Victoria 168, had already been searching for some period of time.


Tom:Every second mattered. The water temperature in the Pacific was 66 degrees. The Coast Guard estimated Keith could only survive a few more hours. They had no chance of getting there in time, so they tried a hail Mary using computer-generated coordinates directing the Victoria 168 and other nearby boats to areas they were most likely to find Keith.


[00:43:30]In all, they scoured about 110 square miles, but it was like searching for a basketball in an area of the size of Philadelphia. Two days later, they called off the search. Keith’s boss, Bryan Belay.





It was all very hard as a company, as are friends of Keith, and as an observer community as a whole that something like this could happen.





The unfortunate thing is sometimes, things like this do happen, but something else was going on too. Keith had seen things out at sea that troubled him. In the weeks leading up to his disappearance, Keith had seen fish coming aboard so heavily carved up, he struggled to identify them.


He had emailed a federal fisheries biologist, asking, “How can you tell the difference between a bigeye and a bluefin with no fins and head?” He might’ve been worried the crews were catching the more valuable bluefin tuna than passing them off as bigeye to get around catch limits, but there was only one way to send those emails, through the captain’s computer, so it’s possible someone else saw them. Keith also sent a cryptic email to his father.





“This boat is a little bit different than I’ve ever seen before, and I’ll tell you all about it when I get back.”


Tom:As it turns out, tension between observers and crew is not unusual. I spoke with many observers, and nearly all of them had stories of being harassed.





I had trained observers and I work with observers all the time.


Tom:Cheree Smith, a former observer who knew Keith, told me about one tale from the South Pacific.


Cheree:When I worked with the Pacific Island fishery, they had an observer who was thrown overboard, and they found him holding on to a floating debris or whatever.


Tom:That case is extreme, but observers often find themselves unwelcome on board. What they see and what they report can get in the way of profits.





You’re the only one out there. When you’re on a boat where there’s 200 crew and you, it’s easy to just get rid of you to do what they need to do to make money, and then it’s open water and it’s a war for money for tuna, so life is respected differently out there.


Tom:In the United States, reports of observer mistreatment and abuse have jumped from 28 in 2009 to 79 in 2015. On the part of the ocean where Keith worked, figures are harder to come by. What is known is that this fishing area is a Wild West-like frontier, where boats, legal and illegal, are chasing schools of tuna worth millions of dollars.





Here you are dropped down to the middle of a bunch of hairy-ass, hard-drinking, hard-smoking, hard-swearing guys.


Tom:Reuben Beazley is a hard-drinking, hard-smoking observer himself. He’s from St. John’s, Newfoundland, Canada. He’s been at it for almost 40 years. He was a buddy of Keith’s, and he knew his friend wasn’t afraid to butt heads when he saw someone breaking the rules.





He maybe should’ve backed off and made a note and said, “Okay, boss, we’ll report this when we get back,” but knowing Keith, he probably didn’t and shit happened.


Tom:Who’s supposed to find answers when bad stuff happens in the international waters? Keith was on a cargo ship that was flying a Panamanian flag, which means it was Panama’s responsibility. Michael Berkow is director of the U.S. Coast Guard Investigative Service.





You’re dealing with ships in international waters that are flagged by other countries. The amount of U.S. jurisdiction is virtually none.


Tom:Still, the U.S. Coast Guard asked to be involved and was invited down to board the ship when it returned to Panama 10 days after Keith disappeared, but not long after the investigation started, Panamanian authorities pulled the plug.





They allowed us to be part of that investigation for about five days.


Tom:I emailed Panamanian authorities about their investigation, but they didn’t respond. What we do know is Panama finished its investigation last year and said they didn’t find evidence to bring charges against anyone.


Panama didn’t produce a report, as typically happens in the U.S., that left Keith’s family and friends in the dark. Keith’s father, John Davis, puts more of the blame on an organization called the Inter-American Tropical Tuna Commission. It subcontracts with observer companies to get data on fish populations.





This is where my anger comes at, these commissions that are not doing the right thing by protecting their observers out there and saying they are.


Tom:The director of the Tuna Commission told me observer management is not its responsibility and in a 2016 report, it didn’t even mention Keith’s disappearance. Now, all observers in the fleet carry satellite texting devices, so they can communicate independently, but Keith’s dad believes authorities should crack down when boats lose an observer.


John:If you’re not punished for an act [inaudible 00:49:20] or taken offline, you can’t fish out there for a year, they’re going to think twice about screwing around with an observer, but such is not the case, because we see what happened to my son.





The U.S. delegation to the Tuna Commission also wants to see more done. This year, it plans to urge the commission to take action to better protect observers from harassment and interference, but none of that will answer what happened to Keith. For now, his friends can only speculate. The Panamanian investigators, if they know anything, haven’t told the Coast Guard.


There was one stone left unturned, the Victoria 168 itself. Late last year, I discovered the boat was anchored in Puerto de Vacamonte, north of Panama City, but in 24 hours, it was heading back out to sea, so producer, Ike Sriskandarajah packed his recorder, hopped on a flight to Panama City, and by the next morning, he was walking up the gangway with Alex Chan, the agent for the Victoria 168.





We just boarded the Victoria 168.


Alex:Yeah. This is Victoria 168.


Tom:Alex handles all the paperwork and logistics for the ship. He was one of the first people contacted when Keith went missing. The ship is nearly as long as a football field. The deck is filled with industrial equipment of one sort or another. There are cranes. There are chains. There are pulleys. There are big, thick ropes. This is where hundreds of tons of fish are offloaded and dropped into super chilled holds to be brought back to shore.





I’m pretty sure that, in total, they can hold 1,200 ton of fish.


Ike:1,200. How long would this ship go out?


Alex:Two months. Two months. Every two months.


Tom:Alex leads Ike towards the middle rear part of the vessel, what’s called the house, a three-story high structure that contains all the living quarters. Smells like Asian food, saltwater, and cigarettes.


One floor up was Keith’s last residence, a tiny cabin with just enough room for a single bed and an airplane-style folding tray to hold a laptop, where Keith might watch a movie at the end of the day, a desk to prepare his notes, a drawer to hold his survival suit he had brought along in case the ship went down. One narrow staircase up is the captain’s bridge. It’s the cockpit of the ship with glass windows looking out in every direction.





Here you can see everything. Is somebody always up here?




Ike:If there’s somebody always here, how do you miss when somebody goes over the edge?





That’s a big mystery. Nobody knows what happened, including me.


Tom:Down in the mess hall, Roy Murdoch is getting ready for breakfast. He’s a new observer from the Solomon Islands. He’s heard of Keith Davis, but it doesn’t seem to worry him.


Roy:It was a tragic situation and my condolences go out to the family and friends.


Ike:You try not to think about it.





Yeah. That’s right. It’s part of the job and it happened. If it happens, then it happens.


Tom:Roy is stoic and serious about his job. For the next two months, his home will be the high seas. His job, to monitor the catch. Roy and the estimated 2,500 other observers out there are trying to make fishery sustainable without losing their lives.


Roy:Yeah. We have a lot of brothers in the past who went down in the front lines, in the ocean. I had friends who perished at sea, and it’s nothing new to me.





Or as Keith wrote it in a song, “They went down to the sea.”


Keith:Some say he’s lost. Maybe he’s been found.


Al:That story was from Tom Knudson, with producer, Ike Sriskandarajah. As it turns out, the U.S. Coast Guard has done a separate investigation of Keith Davis’s disappearance, but has not yet released a report. A year and a half after Keith’s death, many of his friends are coming to grips with the fact that they may never know what happened to him.


[00:53:30]Listen to the Outside Podcast for interviews with iconic adventurers and remarkable tales of survival, including a recent episode on a diver who spent two days trapped underwater in a shipwreck. Check it out in iTunes, Stitcher or wherever you get your podcast.


Our show was edited by Taki Telonidis. Stan Alcorn was our lead producer, and we had help from Sukey Lewis. Our sound design team is the wonder twins, my man, Jay Breezy, Mr. Jim Briggs, and Claire “C-Note” Mullen. They had help this week from [Catherine Raymondo 00:54:16] and Paul Vaitkus. Our head of studio is Christa Scharfenberg. Amy Pyle is our editor-in-chief. Susanne Reber is our executive editor, and our executive producer is Kevin Sullivan. Our theme music is by Camerado-Lightning.


[00:54:30]Support for Reveal is provided by the Reva and David Logan Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation. Reveal is a co-production of the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX. I’m Al Letson and remember, there is always more to the story.


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Julia B. Chan worked at The Center for Investigative Reporting until June, 2017. Julia B. Chan is a producer and the digital editor for Reveal's national public radio program. She’s the voice of Reveal online and manages the production and curation of digital story assets that are sent to more than 200 stations across the country. Previously, Chan helped The Center for Investigative Reporting launch YouTube’s first investigative news channel, The I Files, and led engagement strategies – online and off – for multimedia projects. She oversaw communications, worked to better connect CIR’s work with a bigger audience and developed creative content and collaborations to garner conversation and impact.

Before joining CIR, Chan worked as a Web editor and reporter at the San Francisco Examiner. She managed the newspaper’s digital strategy and orchestrated its first foray into social media and online engagement. A rare San Francisco native, she studied broadcasting at San Francisco State University, focusing on audio production and recording. Chan is based in Reveal's Emeryville, California, office.

Stan Alcorn is a former senior reporter and producer for Reveal. His radio work at Reveal has won awards including a Peabody Award, several Online Journalism Awards, an NABJ Salute to Excellence Award, and a Best of the West Award, as well as making him a finalist for a Livingston Award for Young Journalists. He previously was a reporter for Marketplace, covering business and economic news – from debit card fees levied on the formerly incarcerated to the economic impact of Beyoncé's hair. He has helped launch new shows at Marketplace, Slate, and WNYC; contributed research to books by journalists at Time and CNBC; and reported for outlets including NPR, PRI's The World, 99% Invisible, WNYC, FiveThirtyEight, Fast Company, High Country News, Narratively, and Digg.