Thursday, July 19, 2001

Ohio River yields up sixth body from crash


Barge collisions constant worry for captains

By Terry Flynn
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Searchers on Wednesday found the 16- to 18-foot wooden fishing boat that took six Kentucky men to their deaths when a 14-barge string and towboat slammed into it in early morning fog Sunday.

        They also found the body of the last missing man — Benny Burgan, 34, of Crestwood, Ky.

[photo] The wreckage of a fishing boat is pulled to shore in Bethlehem, Ind., on Wednesday.
(Associated Press photo)
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        After the collision, the towboat's crew heard cries for help and the captain immediately tried to stop the Cincinnati-based commercial boat. It took a half-mile to come to a complete halt about 25 miles northeast of Louisville.

        “Actual collisions between pleasure boats and barges don't happen very often, but when they do they are often very horrific,” said Tony Delong, a regional investigator for the Ohio Department of Natural Resources' Watercraft Division.

        Relatives said the six friends were on their first fishing excursion together in a used boat one of them had purchased recently. They left Saturday afternoon to try out a new fishing spot.

        It isn't clear why they were in a commercial shipping lane on the river about 5:15 a.m. Sunday when the barges slammed head-on into their open boat.

        Scott Noble, a spokesman for the Ohio River Co., which operates the towboat Elaine G, said the small fishing boat's wooden hull would have made it less visible to radar.

        Also, the 14 barges the towboat was pushing were empty.

        As a result, the towboat's radar was riding higher than normal, meaning radar signals could have passed over the small boat, said Steve Davison, owner of D&E Marine of Louisville.

[photo] Operators of pleasure craft on the Ohio River often put themselves in danger, commercial-boat captains say.
(Patrick Reddy photo)
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        In November, a collision involving coal barges and a small fishing boat on the Ohio River near North Bend ended in a similar tragedy, with the drowning of two of the three fishermen.

        The trio apparently did not see the seven coal barges in the dark at about 7 p.m., and their boat ran into the fourth barge in the string.
       

Collision in Cincinnati
        Pleasure boats and commercial barges share a tenuous relationship on the Ohio River, and the relationship can turn dangerous quickly.

        The Louisville-area accident was preceded by a similar one in Cincinnati about a week earlier in which a barge hit a pleasure boat. The boat was stuck with a fouled anchor in the shipping channel, a wide swath marked by red buoys.

        The Ohio River makes up about 10 percent of the navigable commercial waterways in the United States, according to Department of Transportation and Coast Guard figures, but accounts for 40 percent of the commercial tonnage carried by river barges in the country.

        According to figures from the U.S. Coast Guard Marine Safety office in Louisville, there have been 10 collisions involving pleasure craft and barges since 1999 along the 492 miles of the Ohio River in the office's area of responsibility, not including the July 9 and July 15 incidents.

        The Coast Guard's Louisville region stretches from Vanceburg, Ky., to Shawneetown, Ill.

        In that same period, there were 28 incidents in which barges hit objects such as bridges.
       

Close call at Coney
        A barge captain found himself in just such a situation July 9 when radar picked up a group of small watercraft in the channel just offshore from Coney Island and Riverbend.

        Within a few minutes, a 25-foot Bayliner pleasure boat was heavily damaged. Its four occupantswere unhurt.

        “This one was a very close call that didn't result in any injury or loss of life. Everyone was very lucky,” said Mr. Delong, the investigator for the state's natural resources department.

        “Small boats, pleasure craft, are almost always the problem,” said Tony Peveler, a 25-year riverboat captain who operates the 76-foot Victory cruise boat out of Watertown Yacht Club in Dayton, Ky.
       

Barges defended
        “I'm a captain, and I'm also a pleasure boat owner,” Mr. Peveler said as he guided the Victory on a party cruise Friday evening on a stretch of the Ohio River from downtown Cincinnati to Coney Island. “I appreciate both sides of the issue. But there are very few instances where a barge captain makes a mistake that results in a collision.”

        As the Victory moved through river traffic near the Serpentine Wall downtown, two young men on individual watercraft suddenly turned right, in front of the large boat, and zipped toward shore.

        “That's what I mean,” Mr. Peveler said. “They just assumed they could clear us. If one of them had stalled out, we would have run right over him.”

        Towboats pushing a string of barges, such as the one that hit the boat off Riverbend, don't stop quickly and don't turn on a dime. It can take up to 2 miles to stop a full string of barges moving downstream.
       

Decision saved lives
        In the case of the boat offshore from Riverbend, Mr. Delong said, the barge captain saw a group of boats in the channel when he was well upstream, and sounded his horn five times in the standard warning to smaller craft to move.

        “All the other boats anchored in the channel moved, but the one boat had a fouled anchor and couldn't free it.”

        Mr. Delong said the towboat captain said he realized he was bearing down on the pleasure craft and turned the 1,100-foot-long string of barges loaded with coal enough so that it hit the small boat a glancing blow.

        “Deckhands on the lead barge shouted to the people in the boat to jump onto the barge when it hit,” Mr. Delong explained. “Three of the people made it, but the fourth fell back into the boat. The deckhands were able to reach down and pull him out of the boat and onto the barge. It was pretty amazing. And the captain's decision to turn the string of barges almost certainly saved the lives of all four people in the boat.”

Enough lights?
        Mr. Peveler said pleasure boats of all sizes, anchored in the Ohio River channel at night, are a concern for the tow captains and for the captains of excursion boats such as the Victory.

        “I'll pick up some boats on radar sitting in the channel ahead of me, with their lights out,” he said. “I blow the horn to warn them to move, but when they finally move, they cuss at me and make gestures like I'm the bad guy.”

        As he returned from a three-hour cruise with a boatload of people enjoying a wedding rehearsal dinner, he encountered just such a problem. A small boat was sitting in the river near the entrance to Watertown Marina, its motor and lights turned off.

        “I have to make a decision and hope that he doesn't decide to suddenly start up and move in front of me,” Mr. Peveler said as he swung the 76-foot Victory to the left and idled into the marina.

        Mr. Delong said the main complaint his office hears from towboat skippers is “people anchoring in the channel, and people skiing in front of the barges. I'm a pleasure-boat owner myself, but you have to use some common sense, especially at night. If a skier falls in front of a barge, there's nothing the (towboat) captain can do about it.”

        The men in the fishing boat accident near Louisville probably had little or no warning that the string of barges was bearing down on them, he said.

        “You can't hear the engines of the towboat until it's close because the barges are blocking the sound,” he said. “And fog on the river also muffles sound effectively.”

        Mr. Peveler said he would like to see more lights on the barges. “They're almost impossible to see at night,” he said, “especially near the city, where the lights from the buildings are reflecting on the surface of the water.”

        Mr. Delong said barges are required to have green and red running lights on either side of the front of the lead barge, with a flashing yellow light on the front of the lead barge.

        “There is also a series of lights on the rear, and that's all they are required to have by law,” he said. “Some barge companies have put more lights on their barges, but that's strictly up to them. They are not required to do it.

        “I have a bass boat and I like to fish the river, and I like to be out on the river at night,” Mr. Delong said. “I'd like to see more lighting on the barges. But the first rule is to be careful at all times on the river and be aware of what's near you.

        “The rules of the road on the river can be technical, because you don't have marked lanes and traffic signals, but one critical rule is responsibility. If you can avoid an accident, whether you're in the right or not, and you don't, then you must accept the responsibility equally.”

        The Associated Press contributed to this report.

       

       



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