Barge hits recreational vessel on Alabama lake, killing two boaters

Two passengers aboard a pontoon boat died after their stalled vessel was struck by a barge in northwest Alabama.

On the night of Aug. 15, the barge ran into the pontoon boat carrying eight adults on Wilson Lake, about a mile east of the Wilson Lock and Dam on the Tennessee River. The U.S. Coast Guard in New Orleans said the towing vessel involved was Winchester, pushing several barges. Winchester is owned by Excell Marine Corp. in Ohio.

Five of the pleasure-boat passengers were from Muscle Shoals, Ala. They had taken three friends from Texas out on the boat for stargazing. All eight fell overboard after a barge emerged at 2213 from a lock, headed downstream and struck the pontoon boat, which was stalled. The towboat was headed east toward Wheeler Dam, said Alabama Department of Public Safety spokeswoman Robyn Bryan. 

Six passengers were rescued by the barge crew and taken to a Florence, Ala., hospital with minor injuries. Two people were reported missing. 

“The search and rescue evolved into a recovery operation,” Bryan said. 

Agencies participating included the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency’s (ALEA) Marine Patrol Division, the Florence fire and police departments, Killen Volunteer Fire Department, Lauderdale County EMA, Colbert County EMA and the Muscle Shoals Police Department, Bryan said. 

At about 0030 on Aug. 16, the body of 79-year-old Catherine Ekholm of Arlington, Texas, was found in the water. On Aug. 18, the body of 62-year-old Sid Elliot of Florence was discovered at 0900 in the lake close to where the incident occurred.

In October, the Lauderdale County coroner didn’t respond to email and phone inquiries about what caused the two deaths.

Local first responders participated in the August search and rescue, said senior trooper Johnathan Appling of the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency. The wrecked pontoon boat was towed away.

“The Coast Guard’s role was that it spent two days at the site interviewing witnesses for an investigation,” Coast Guard spokesman Seth Johnson in New Orleans said in September. The accident’s causes and whether the pontoon boat’s passengers were wearing life jackets won’t be discussed until that investigation is complete. 

Meanwhile, the ALEA’s Marine Patrol Division is conducting its own lengthy investigation. “We aren’t prepared to release any information yet about what may have caused (the incident),” Appling said in September. Weather doesn’t appear to have been a factor.

Officials at Excell Marine didn’t respond to email requests for comment.

By Professional Mariner Staff