Ferries and family settle over man's vanishing

The question of how or why crewman Steve L. Brown disappeared from the ferry Tacoma on the night of Feb. 18, 1998, may never be known, but now his family says it has some satisfaction and closure.

Yesterday, Brown's mother, Dottie, and his brother Brad released what they consider an apology from the Washington State Ferries system and said their persistence has made the ferries safer. "Our whole goal was to make the ferries safer for passengers and crew. Our whole goal," Dottie Brown emphasized at a news conference.

The Browns read a two-paragraph letter from Joseph Nortz, the ferry system's director of marine services, acknowledging "the loss of a valued crewmember, Steven L. Brown. Given the passage of time, the Washington State Ferries presumes that Mr. Brown is deceased, and we extend our heartfelt sympathies to his family."

The statement also said the ferry system has made a number of improvements in its search-and-rescue procedures and training and will continue to do so.

The Coast Guard, Washington State Patrol and the King County Medical Examiner's Office investigated Brown's disappearance and concluded there was no way to know if he fell, jumped or was pushed into the water shortly after the ferry departed Bainbridge Island for Seattle.

Brown's body was never recovered and a "presumptive death certificate" was issued in June 2000.

His family sued the ferry system, claiming the crew of the Tacoma didn't do enough to find Brown after he went into the water, and saying they wanted to force improvements in the way search-and-rescue operations are conducted.

The image of the ferry pulling away from her son in the water is "the nightmare I've had to live with," Dottie Brown said.

Pat Patterson, director of corporate communications for the ferry system, said the major change since Brown's death is to "muster the crew" for an immediate nose count once someone is reported overboard.

Overboard procedures that were "common practice" prior to Brown's disappearance have been formalized into policies, making compliance more certain, Patterson said.

There was much confusion on the night of Brown's disappearance, Patterson pointed out. Although three people said they heard the shouts of someone who fell overboard, there was a time lag before a crew member was told and another delay before the captain was notified, she said. And no one was actually seen in the water.

It was not determined that Brown was missing until the ferry docked in Seattle, where the crew was counted. The state Department of Labor and Industries fined the ferry system $1,400 for failing to take an immediate head count of the crew after the reports of someone overboard. Dottie Brown and her attorneys, Jeff Campiche and Carol Hepburn, maintain that because of the lawsuit the ferry system has sharpened its focus on overboard procedures, including use of a global-positioning system to determine the ferry's precise path, seeking more help from the passengers as lookouts and using life rings to mark where someone has gone into the water.

Allegations that Brown may have taken his own life to avoid financial and legal problems are not true, Dottie Brown said. "I knew from the beginning that Steve would not have done this intentionally," she said.

The Browns agreed to a $25,000 settlement, about enough to pay the legal fees, Dottie Brown said. The point of the lawsuit was not to make money but to force changes, she stressed.