Captain manages to survive after his boat disappears under barge

To the astonishment of rescuers, a towboat master managed to survive after his vessel was pulled by currents underneath a large segmented barge in the Mississippi River.

While underwater, the master managed to escape from the wheelhouse and then popped up to the surface at least 150 feet from the vessels.

Gabriel J was building a platform out of Flexifloat segments June 1 at a riverside construction business near downtown St. Louis when the trouble began. A strong current trapped the 730-hp boat against the custom-made barge and dragged it under at 1459.

Gabriel J’s deck hand was able to leap onto the platform and was unhurt. The captain, however, didn’t have time to flee the wheelhouse and went down with the boat, said St. Louis Fire Department Capt. Michael Pickett.

The captain exited the submerged towboat and managed to find daylight and swim out from under the platform, Pickett said. The 49-year-old victim could hardly breathe when he was rescued by a good Samaritan boat.

“The operator was inside the pilothouse when the boat got caught in a cross-tow or an undertow, and it sucked the whole boat under the barge, and the boat stayed under,†Pickett said. “You can imagine a whole boat being sucked under a barge. It was almost unbelievable.â€

Gabriel J and the construction yard are owned and operated by Alberici Constructors Inc., which is involved in bridge construction in the region. The company’s senior vice president, Jim Frey, said the deck hand was wearing a life vest, the captain was not and was not required to.

“They were working to push some Flexifloat barges together,†Frey said. “It’s a dock that we use to load materials in barges to take some steel down to a project.â€

The river was high at the time, said Lt. Rob McCaskey, an incident manager with the U.S. Coast Guard’s Sector Upper Mississippi River. McCaskey said the segmented barge was 150 feet by 140 feet.

Two men on an outboard Jon boat witnessed the entire episode and rescued the victim in the nick of time. Pickett identified the good Samaritans as Dean Presley and Steve Christian of Humboldt Boat Service. The fire department responded with its Boston Whaler rescue boat and an ambulance to pick up the struggling towboat master, whose survival was amazing, Pickett said.

“He went down with the boat, and he came up on the other side, 150 feet to 200 feet from where he had been,†Pickett said. “When he surfaced, he was in dire distress. He couldn’t have lasted much longer. He had water in his lungs, and even when we talked to him in the ambulance, he was still coughing up water.â€

The captain was treated at a St. Louis hospital and released.

Frey said his own crews salvaged Gabriel J. The 69-gross-ton vessel was out of service in June awaiting unspecified repairs.

“The exact cause of the incident has not yet been determined and remains under investigation,†McCaskey said.

Dom Yanchunas

By Professional Mariner Staff