Crew escapes, barges break free as Mississippi River towboat sinks

Eric Haney

Nine crewmembers escaped from a towboat after it grounded in the Mississippi River near Cairo, Ill., and partially sank along the riverbank.

The 5,000-hp Eric Haney was pushing upriver with 15 empty hopper barges when it struck a dike on the right descending bank at about midnight on July 8 at mile marker 9.7. Its engine room flooded and crew escaped first to a barge, then to the American Commercial Barge Line towboat Safety Guide, which responded from Cairo.

The Coast Guard is investigating the accident but has not determined the cause. “The vessel did strike a dike and that is what caused the vessel to sink,” Coast Guard spokeswoman Alicia Preston said of Eric Haney. “What is under investigation is why it hit that.”

Eric Haney departed from ACBL’s Cairo barge fleeting area not long before the accident. The company heard the crew’s distress calls over radio and sent three towboats, Safety Guide, Mark Glaab and Dale Robbins, according to Mark Glaab, ACBL’s Cairo facility manager.

Eric Haney was still afloat roughly 80 feet from the bank when Safety Guide reached it after the accident. Glaab said the barge tow was keeping the stricken vessel afloat. Shortly after the rescue, the rigging broke and the towboat sank to the river bottom, leaving only the wheelhouse above water.

“When it broke, it went down fast,” Glaab said.

Dale Robbins and Mark Glaab retrieved the empty barges and brought them back to the Cairo fleeting area. Safety Guide brought Eric Haney’s crew back to a James Marine facility in Wickliffe, Ky., Glaab said.

Tennessee Valley Towing, a James Marine subsidiary based in Paducah, Ky., operates the 170-foot twin-screw vessel, which was built in 1966 and previously operated by ACBL and Ingram Barge Co. Tennessee Valley Towing did not respond to multiple requests for comment about the accident.

Eric Haney carried about 79,000 gallons of diesel and another 1,600 gallons of lube oil when it sank. After the accident, authorities established a unified command consisting of Tennessee Valley Towing, the Missouri Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and the Coast Guard, which dispatched an investigation team from nearby Paducah.

A team from the oil spill response firm SWS Environmental Services arrived on July 9. Crews determined the vessel was stable along the bank, the Missouri DNR said. The spill response team placed hard boom and sorbents around the vessel, and divers successfully plugged vents to prevent fuel from escaping.

“An unknown but small amount of diesel fuel was initially released through the vents, but approximately 400 feet of boom was able to contain roughly 90 percent of it,” said Brad Morgan of the Missouri DNR. “The remainder produced an intermittent, spotty sheen that was lost downstream. No other releases occurred, and the whole situation is considered stable.”

More than 110,000 gallons of fuel and oily-water mixture were removed from the vessel, the Coast Guard said.

Salvage crews raised Eric Haney on July 20, and another towboat pushed it to Wickliffe for temporary repairs in dry dock. Permanent repairs were expected to be conducted later in Paducah. Details on damage to Eric Haney were not available.

By Professional Mariner Staff