Monday, July 23, 2001

Fishermen died doing what they loved

By Chris Kenning
The Courier-Journal

        LOUISVILLE — The day before he died, John Beatty Jr. remarked to a handful of fishing buddies boating with him on the Ohio that the river seemed unusually crowded with two-way barge traffic. If you were hit, he said, it could suck you right under.

        It wasn't the first time Mr. Beatty or his friends had noticed the danger in sharing a river with barges. Fishing at night, anchored near the bank, they'd often been startled by passing towboats pushing thousand-yard barges they never heard coming.

        A week ago, Mr. Beatty and his tight-knit group of blue-collar friends — guys whose lives flowed together through years of construction and trucking jobs, children and grandchil dren, cookouts and inside jokes, money problems and divorce — fell victim to such a barge.

        Their boat was hit in a commercial shipping channel 25 miles northeast of Louisville in a dark, predawn fog about 5 a.m. Sunday, authorities say. It took four days to confirm that all six Kentucky men were killed — Rob Valentine, 36, Mr. Beatty, 34, Bennie Burgan, 38, Joe Lucas Jr., 40, William “Lurch” Young, 42, and Terry Hites, 48.

        Allen Zetko, a friend who was on the boat with Mr. Beatty the day before, said the men were “like a family.” They left behind businesses they'd started, children they'd fathered, women they'd married and friends they'd had since childhood.

Celebratory trip planned
               Just two days before the accident, Mr. Valentine was in high spirits.

        The engine on a used 16-foot Wellcraft runabout he'd recently bought was finally working. He'd tinkered and fixed it up with the help of friends such as Mr. Burgan, for whom fishing was nearly an obsession.

        Mr. Burgan was a lifelong mechanic who came home every night with grease under his fingernails and a strong hug for his wife. He could fix everything, from toasters to motorcycles, and once took apart a car's transmission with a butter knife.

        Mr. Valentine decided to christen his boat by inviting his closest friends on a night-fishing trip, something they'd done hundreds of times in smaller groups.

        It was a good time to celebrate: Mr. Lucas had just reunited with his wife, Phyllis, after a painful divorce, and was about to become a grandfather for the second time. And he and Mr. Hites had recently started a maintenance business, fulfilling a longtime dream. Mr. Young was going to see his 19-year-old son, with whom he'd been rebuilding a once-strained relationship, get baptized on Sunday.

        On Saturday night, the men got ready to spend the night on the river they'd fished countless times. At their home in La Grange, Mr. Hites' wife of nine years, Brenda, was impatient for him to leave.

        “I wanted to watch my movie,” she recalled. “He kissed me, said goodbye and that he'd see me tomorrow.”

        The next day, Brenda Hites woke about 7 a.m. and fixed breakfast. She wasn't expecting her husband before noon. But Mr. Valentine's wife, Cindy, was furious. She'd expected her husband, a diabetic who needed insulin, by 7, and he hadn't called.

        Brenda Hites talked to Cindy Valentine but still wasn't worried. “I figured maybe the boat broke down,” she said. It wouldn't have been the first time. Once, the engine on Mr. Hites' runabout died while on the river. Lacking paddles, his fishing companions moved the boat down the river using lawn chairs.

        By early evening, a slow, creeping sense of alarm began to set in. The wives of the six men began calling each other. Driving down to the Westport ramp, they saw the men's cars still in the parking lot.

        Mr. Valentine's mother notified the Coast Guard that the men were late in returning home and might be in trouble.

        Back in La Grange, Brenda Hites got a call from Indiana Conservation officers; they wanted to stop by. Soon, four official-looking cars pulled up to the Hites home, where some of the other wives and family had gathered. The officers said there'd been an accident, that a barge in the early-morning hours had heard cries and apparently struck a boat.

        “I could feel a hand clamping down further and further, tighter and tighter on my heart, and this feeling creeping up my spine,” Mrs. Hites said.

Friendships developed
               Brenda Hites met Mr. Hites more than a decade ago, while bouncing back from a divorce. She befriended and then married the brown-eyed truck driver who had a good sense of humor and a love of Bob Seger.

        She'd known Mr. Valentine since high school, and through Mr. Hites, she met others who would form the clique: Mr. Burgan, a mechanic devoted to his three kids; Mr. Beatty, a printing-press operator who enjoyed sharing beers after work with colleagues and fishing on weekends; Mr. Lucas, an Army veteran who'd weathered a divorce, worked in factories and was a die-hard hunter; Mr. Young, who enjoyed riverboat gambling and who feared he'd wind up in a wheelchair as his bad back deteriorated.

A week of funerals
               By Monday, a grim vigil was under way. Brenda Hites said she held out hope until she reached the banks of the Ohio.

        “I just looked out across that water and I knew,” she said.

        Mr. Lucas' grandchild, Alexis Joe, was born on Sunday. The first bodies were brought up Monday. By Wednesday, the last — Mr. Burgan's — had been found.

        By week's end, the families had held a string of funerals. Some relatives said there was a strange comfort in the way the men died, because they were with those they loved, doing what they loved.

        Coast Guard and Indiana Department of Natural Resources investigations are under way. There are many theories, including engine failure and confusion in the fog.

        But the accident confounds friends, who cite the fishermen's experience. They had set out to go catfishing, which means fishing along the shore of the river. They knew that shipping lanes were dangerous.

        Investigators said a few empty beer and soda cans were found in a cooler. Mr. Zetko, Billy Lucas and others familiar with the boating trips said no one ever drank to excess. They were careful to stay alert and aware, the friends said.

        The ordeal has changed Mr. Zetko's view of the river — forever, he says.

        “That river sucked the life out of all my friends,” Mr. Zetko said. “I can't even look at it.”


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