Family mourns COVID-19 death of Norfolk shipyard contract engineer


NORFOLK, Va. (WAVY) — A local family is devastated and demanding answers following the COVID-19 death of a BAE Systems Norfolk Ship Repair contract engineer.

Robert Allen Fentress, 44, died last Thursday, just two days after he received positive test results.

As loved ones make plans to say goodbye, they are calling on BAE to shut down the yard before the virus claims another shipyard worker.

Fentress’ last day on the job — working on the USS Bulkeley — was March 26.

The next day, he went to a clinic in Virginia Beach for complaints of congestion. Fentress, who has a history of bronchitis, was sent home with an inhaler.

His sister, Toshiba Fentress, says her brother received poor treatment at the facility.

“Initially, when he went for help it was misdiagnosed and they refused to test him. It was refused because they didn’t feel he met enough criteria,” said Fentress.

Four days later, under self-quarantine, Fentress was tested for COVID-19 at the Norfolk Health Department. Eight days later, the results came back as positive.

BAE officials say two other workers have tested positive and they are keeping an eye on at least four others who may have been exposed including someone who also worked on the Bulkeley.

Around noon on April 9, Fentress was feeling better. He was looking forward to spending time with family members and returning the shipyard.

After returning home from a ride around town, loved ones say Fentress’ condition took a dramatic turn. His sister describes the last minutes of Fentress’ life.

“When he got back from sightseeing with his significant other, he walked back into his home. On the way to the home, he began to stumble; once he got to the house his eyes rolled to the back of his head. He sat down in the chair and that was it. That is what happened to my brother,” Toshiba Fentress said.

She is concerned about the well-being of those who helped her brother during his brief illness.

According to victim’s sister, a caretaker is under self-quarantine.

Fentress’ sister is trying to collect sanitizers and other hard-to-find supplies for the few people who were exposed to her brother.

“Everywhere you look there is no Lysol; there is no hand sanitizer and we need gloves. We need masks, we need bleach, toilet paper, trash bags, and paper towels, said Toshiba Fentress.

BAE and other shipyards are considered essential operations. But, just last week, the president of the United Steelworkers Local 8888 union called on officials to shut the gates at Newport News Shipbuilding where 22 workers have tested positive.

The Fentress family says BAE should do the same.

“I spoke with my brother around the 16 or 17 of March and he spoke those exact words to me. He said he wishes they would shut it down; those are my brother’s words,” Toshiba Fentress said.

If you want to help the family, send an email to

BAE officials are asking workers to practice social distancing and to stay home if they are ill. Shipyard officials will soon roll out health screenings for workers who report for duty.

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