The Southern California harbor area waterfront was changed forever during the early morning hours of November 4th when longshore worker Bert Tufele was killed on the job at the Stevedore Services of America (SSA) Marine Terminal on Pier A in Long Beach. He is believed to be the first longshore worker of Samoan decent killed on the docks in Long Beach.
At approximately 2:30 a.m. Tufele was driving along the highline adjacent to the vessel from which he was moving cargo containers on Berth 94, when the front of his utility tractor (UTR) clipped the bombcart on another UTR in front of him. He was ejected from his UTR on impact and run over by its tires, causing him instant fatal injuries, according to preliminary reports of the incident. A final report by OSHA has not yet been issued.
Within an hour, the terminal was overwhelmed with fellow longshore workers, most of whom were Polynesian, who arrived to pay respect to their fallen brother and his wife, Vailili, who is also a longshore worker and had been working at a nearby terminal. Vailili had gotten off work at 3 a.m. and had just pulled into her drive- way when she received the phone call that changed her life. The mood was extremely somber, yet, there was a calm camaraderie as Polynesian dock- workers waited in the parking lot to comfort their sister upon her arrival.
From the main gate, busloads of workers who had either just ended their shifts or had left their homes upon news of the accident, were trans- ported to the scene. In an unprecedented act of solidarity and support for the deceased and his family, more than 100 union officials, company personnel, and other dockworkers waited while authorities completed their investigation and the body was released to the coroner.
Just prior to Tufele’s remains being taken away, the entire group gathered in a prayer lead by members of clergy from Tufele’s church who had been admitted into the terminal. Several ILWU officers and SSA managers remarked that they had never seen anything like this upon the death of a dockworker. Usually, one or two family members arrive to say farewell to the deceased, but never had so many fellow union members arrived so quickly.
This exceptional show of solidarity, especially in the pre-dawn hours, went beyond the slogan, “an injury to one, is an injury to all” because Tufele was more than just a union brother, he was an “uso,” which means a Samoan brother. Of all the ties that bind, that connection carries the most weight in the hearts of Polynesians.
While there have been numerous other longshore deaths on the docks, this may be the first death involving the driver of a UTR, also known as a yard hustler, that was not caused by faulty equipment or another party. Previous deaths included longshore workers performing duties in other job classifications, such as forklift operators, swing men, signal men, hatch bosses, lashers, and clerking. There have been other driver-related deaths involving outside, non-longshore truck drivers.
UTR driving, which is considered a Skill II occupation and requires UTR certification training, constitutes the majority of the workers dispatched out of ILWU Local 13. During any given shift, there are more UTR drivers on a terminal than any other type of worker. A typical vessel gang consists of two foremen, two crane operators, four swing men, one dock signal, and as many as ten UTR drivers. There have been numerous UTR-related accidents. UTR drivers are cautioned to inspect their vehicles prior to the start of the shift, maintain safe speed, and wear seatbelts while operating their vehicles. However, most UTRs do not have speedometers and have mechanical defects, including missing or malfunctioning seatbelts. Tufele’s accident occurred just prior to the end of his shift, which ran from 6 p.m. to 3 a.m.
Tufele was born on January 26, 1955 in Utulei, American Samoa. He is survived by: his wife, Vailili; 3 sons, Maze, Angelo, and Drake; his daugh- ters, Jazmin and Jade; and 3 grandsons, Jared, Trent, and Jordan. He was a career truck driver working for several import/export companies transport- ing cargo across the continental United States for more than 20 years until he became a casual longshore worker in 2004, and then a registered Class B Member of Local 13 in 2007.
Tufele was a self-taught musician actively involved in both a perform- ing group, Island Royalty, which he created with his family, as well as his church. He was an accomplished gui- tarist and lead vocalist, and he had recently produced a self-titled CD featuring his original songs.
Funeral services for Tufele took place Sunday, Nov. 14 and Monday, Nov. 15. In lieu of flowers, the family is requesting financial contributions to the Bert Tufele Memorial Fund in care of the ILWU Credit Union in Wilmington.
– Vivian J. Malauulu