By Vivian J.Malauulu
The harbor area waterfront was changed forever during the early hours of the morning on Thursday, Nov. 4 when Bert Tufele became the first longshore worker of Samoan descent to die on the job at the Stevedore Services of America (SSA) Marine Terminal on Pier A in Long Beach.
At approximately 2:30am, Tufele was driving along the highline adjacent to the vessel to and from which he was moving cargo containers on Berth 94, when the front of his UTR (utility tractor rig) clipped the bombcart hooked up to 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.
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, who is also a longshore worker and had been working at a nearby terminal. Tufele’s wife, who had gotten off work at 3am, had just pulled up in her driveway 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, bus loads of workers who had either just ended their shift or had left their homes upon news of the accident were transported 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 dock workers 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 led by members of clergy from Tufele’s church who had been admitted into the terminal in what may possibly have been the very first mass prayer gathering on any terminal in the harbor area. Several ILWU officers and SSA managers remarked that they had never seen anything like this upon the death of a dock worker. 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 since it was during pre-dawn hours, transcended beyond the union tenet that “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 is the first death involving a UTR driver, 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 10 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 many have mechanical defects, including missing or malfunctioning seatbelts. Tufele’s accident occurred just prior to the end of his shift, which ran from 6pm to 3am.
Tufele was born on January 26, 1955, in Utulei, American Samoa. He is survived by: his wife, Vailili; three sons, Maze, Angelo, and Drake; his daughters, Jazmin and Jade; and three grandsons, Jared, Trent, and Jordan. He was a career truck driver working for several import/export companies transporting 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 performing group, Island Royalty, which he created with his family, as well as the worship team of his church, The B.L.O.C.K. (Building Levels on Christ’s Kingdom). He was an accomplished guitarist and lead vocalist, and he had recently produced a self-titled CD featuring his original songs. He rededicated his life to the Lord in 2008, and his family is comforted by the memory of his ocean water baptism just two months ago.
Funeral services for Tufele will take place Sunday, Nov. 14 and Monday, Nov. 15. The viewing will be on Sunday, Nov. 14 from 3pm to 4pm, followed by a memorial service from 4pm to 8pm at First Christian Church, 444 E. Lomita Blvd. in Wilmington. The funeral service will be Monday, Nov. 15 at 10am at the same church, followed by burial services at Green Hills Cemetery in San Pedro. 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 is a freelance writer and a registered longshore worker with Local 13.