A minivan aboard a St. Lawrence River car ferry rolled out of position, broke through a ramp and plunged into the water. The incident caused the boat’s captain to suffer a heart attack.
It’s probable that Capt. George Horne, 64, survived only because an ambulance already had been staged at the river’s shoreline due to the precautionary presumption that someone may have been inside the submerged van, authorities said.
The accident aboard William Darrell happened Oct. 16 near the middle of the St. Lawrence River just after the Horne’s Ferry vessel had departed Cape Vincent, N.Y., en route to Wolfe Island, Ontario.
At about 1400, the 68-foot ferry was sailing in moderately choppy conditions near the main shipping channel. That’s when Horne and his crewmate brother noticed one of the vehicles — a Dodge Caravan — bumping the ramp as the vessel rocked.
“The boat rolled a little bit, and the van went one way, and then it rolled the other way, and maybe it did that once or twice,” Capt. Horne told Professional Mariner.
Horne said he sent his brother Bruce to secure the minivan but it was too late. Horne then began suffering his heart attack and said he doesn’t remember anything after that.
“Eventually the car rolled and hit the ramp and broke the pin” and plunged into the water, said Chief Mark Machunis of the U.S. Coast Guard’s Marine Safety Unit at Massena, N.Y.
After the minivan fell into the river, one of the Hornes steered the ferry back to the spot and Bruce Horne was able to connect a line to the vehicle.
“It rolled right into the water and it floated for a short period of time,” Cape Vincent Police Chief Thomas Strejlau said. “They actually had to maneuver the boat back to where the vehicle was. It was quick thinking. They didn’t have a lot of time. It stayed afloat long enough to get up next to it. They pretty much lassoed it around the tire, so it grabbed ahold of the axle.”
The action temporarily prevented the Caravan from sinking. Then came the arduous task of towing the unusual load back to the Cape Vincent ferry landing.
“They were able to get a line around it and secure it to the vessel,” Machunis said. “The problem was that he wasn’t able to steer the vessel very well because the car was kind of acting like an anchor.”
During the struggle, an ambulance was called because no one could be certain if any people were in the minivan. Soon a Seaway Pilots Inc. boat arrived to assist the laboring William Darrell and together the two vessels delivered the minivan close to shore.
“The vehicle eventually sank and the line got tangled in one of the props and they lost one engine and couldn’t really steer with it,” Strejlau said.
The vessels cut the ill-fated Caravan loose. The local rescue squad later retrieved the sunken vehicle by attaching air bags and inflating them, and a large earth-moving excavator pulled it onto dry land.
Strejlau said the investigation revealed that the Caravan was a rental booked by a family who were not very familiar with the vehicle and left it in neutral. Horne’s Ferry didn’t routinely use blocks to secure passenger vehicles, but the minivan was parked in the one spot where a drifting car could pose a hazard. It was the last one loaded in, next to the raised ramp.
“I think they are going to change the policy to put blocks on that vehicle in the middle right by the ramp,” Machunis said.
Capt. Horne said the ferry already had signs posted that warn drivers to put gearshifts in “park” and deploy the parking brake. “We have blocks if we need them,” he said.
Authorities eventually realized that no one was inside the minivan when it took the plunge. What they didn’t know immediately was that the ailing ferry captain’s life was in danger. The ambulance was already standing by. “It probably saved him,” Machunis said.
The rescue crew deployed an automated external defibrillator (AED), Strejlau said. Horne reached the hospital in critical condition but recovered.
“It’s overwhelming how lucky he is — where it happened and that he was brought back to life with an AED,” Strejlau said. “It was like a miracle, really.”
After the accident, Horne’s Ferry closed for the season. A recuperating George Horne vows that the service will resume for the 2013 season.