Friday, July 27, 2001

Lawyer: Barge firm free of blame in fatal crash

The Associated Press

        LOUISVILLE — A Coast Guard hearing into a deadly Ohio River collision wrapped up Thursday with a barge company attorney casting blame away from a towboat crew — and victims' relatives still seeking answers.

        Todd Powers, attorney for Ohio River Co., said evidence showed the towboat crew “followed the rules of navigation” and shouldn't take any blame for the July 15 collision between a commercial barge and a fishing boat that killed all six Kentucky men in the fishing craft.

        The Cincinnati company owns the towboat and barges.

        Mr. Powers said the towboat's radar worked fine and that a proper lookout was maintained before the early morning collision, one of the deadliest boating accidents in recent history on the busy waterway.

        By contrast, the fishing boat was apparently adrift, overweight, leaking water and improperly lighted, Mr. Powers said.

        He also noted a medical examiner's testimony earlier Thursday that toxicology tests found traces of cocaine in the six victims.

        “It's a tragedy that was avoidable, if at all, by the conduct of the individuals in the pleasure boat,” Mr. Powers said.

        His closing statement drew gasps from relatives of the victims, seated at the back of the federal courtroom for the two-day, fact-finding hearing.

        Relatives were frustrated that an attorney representing the estate of one victim wasn't allowed to cross-examine witnesses, a privilege extended to attorneys for the barge company and the towboat captain.

        Chris Meinhart, a Louisville attorney representing the estate of William Young, said the hearing became “more of a one-sided defense trial” when those attorneys followed the Coast Guard investigator in questioning the witnesses.

        Meinhart said the families will seek more information about the collision before deciding whether to file lawsuits.

        Also on Thursday, an Indiana official investigating the crash testified the fishing boat sank instantly following the collision in a commercial shipping lane about 25 miles northeast of Louisville.

        The fishing boat was not in motion and fishing lines were reeled in when the accident occurred, said Tony Stoll, a conservation officer with the Indiana Department of Natural Resources.

        Investigators recovered life jackets, but none of the victims were found wearing them, he said.

        The towboat captain, Terry Graham, took a breath test shortly after the accident that found no trace of alcohol in his system, Mr. Stoll said.

        Meanwhile, a state medical examiner testified that toxicology tests found traces of alcohol and cocaine in the victims.

        The highest blood-alcohol concentration was 0.058, said Dr. Barbara Weakley-Jones. It's possible the presence of alcohol could have been caused by the bodies' decomposition, not drinking, the medical examiner said.

        The Coast Guard hearing, in which witnesses testify under oath, finished one day earlier than scheduled. The Coast Guard investigator will later issue a report determining what happened on the river.

        The amounts of cocaine found from the blood tests varied among victims, she said. Prescription drugs, including painkillers, also were found in some victims. All six drowned, she said.


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