Crew of towboat leads rescue of 10 boaters on the Gulf Intracoastal

The towboat Miss Julie was pushing a load of waste oil on the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway on a windy afternoon in early March when one of the deck hands noticed what appeared to be an overturned hull in the distance. He immediately informed his vessel’s pilot and the two reached for binoculars.

After a deck hand aboard the towboat Miss Julie spotted people in the water, Michael D. Allen maneuvered the towboat and its loaded barge into shallow water, positioning the vessels so the people in the water would be carried by the current toward their rescuers on the towboat.

Indeed, an overturned hull, less than a half-mile away, materialized in the glasses. The two briefly discussed trying to salvage the vessel. But then one of them observed a cluster of bright-orange spots bobbing near the hull. Could they be people in life jackets? Another group was spotted beyond the first.

What unfolded was a dramatic joint rescue effort by Miss Julie’s crew and the U.S. Coast Guard. The rescue spanned nine hours and resulted in the recovery of 10 boaters, several of them children, who had been in the 55° F water for more than six hours. Two boys, ages 5 and 9, drowned. The accident occurred on Matagorda Bay near Port O’Connor, Texas, at approximately 1500 on March 12. The 18-foot recreational vessel was apparently overloaded, according to the Coast Guard.

“It was a family fishing trip,” said Boatswain’s Mate Second Class Lance Benedict of Coast Guard Station Port O’Connor. “They had too many people on the vessel.” Weather conditions included 15- to 20-knot winds and 3-foot seas.

Michael D. Allen, the pilot on the towboat, was on watch at the time. “When we saw these people in the water, we immediately called the Coast Guard and sounded the general alarm to get everybody up,” Allen said in an interview following the rescue. “We diverted the tow, but our first concern was that with the loaded barge we might run them over.”

The towboat crew included Ray Adaway, the vessel’s captain, and two deck hands, Brian Mills and Michael Jordan. Miss Julie is operated by Hard’s Marine Service of Channelview, Texas.

Allen maneuvered the loaded barge, which was drawing 7 feet, into the South Channel. “The charts say I have 9 feet of water, but I knew we might go aground as we got towards the edge of the channel and approached the people in the water,” Allen said.

The barge had a double hull and the bottom was muddy, so Allen felt going aground did not pose any significant environmental risks. In fact the barge’s bow did strike bottom.

“The current, which was running southerly — outbound — from Matagorda Bay, pushed them toward us, and the first person we got aboard was a 3-year-old boy and his mother,” Allen said. “After we got them aboard, we got out all the blankets we could and shut down the AC and got the heaters going. The boy was so cold that he wasn’t responding. The mother told us they’d been in the water for over six hours. She also said there were a total of 12 people on the boat when it went over.” All the passengers were wearing life jackets, the crew was told.

To swing closer to another pair of swimmers who were being carried away in the current, Allen backed the engines to pivot the stern of the towboat. The wash of the propellers succeeded in drawing the pair closer. The crew brought aboard a 10-year-old boy and his father. Two others, who were not identified, were also brought aboard, Allen said. All were hypothermic but otherwise were uninjured.

The crew successfully revived the 3-year-old with a combination of warmth, humor and bribery. “When we first brought him aboard his eyes were so wide and his skin was so cold, we thought we were going to lose him. He just wasn’t responding at all,” Allen said. “We had all kinds of candy onboard the boat, but he didn’t notice any of that. The captain finally offered the boy his watch — a $280 Seiko — if he would just say, ‘Mama.’ Finally, the boy says, ‘Mama!’ The captain lost his watch.”

Meanwhile, the Coast Guard had dispatched a twin-outboard patrol boat with three crew aboard and a helicopter with a rescue swimmer. The vessel was reportedly on scene within a half hour. The Coast Guard then rescued four more people, including a man who said his son, a 5-year-old boy, was still missing. The survivors were transferred to Miss Julie so the search could continue.

Allen joined the Coast Guard crew aboard the RIB — after a brief tussle with Coast Guard headquarters over the liability of having a civilian aboard — so he could lead the search. “I had plotted on the charts where I thought this other group would be, and it would take too much time to explain to these guys where the two groups of people might be, especially since we had lost sight of them by this time.”

The crew first decided to search the capsized vessel, to determine if anyone had remained with the boat. Upon approaching the hull, Allen said he could see a pair of legs in the water. A teenage girl was pulled from the water. “She was inside the forward cubby, breathing in the air space,” Allen said. At this point the crew had rescued a total of nine people; three remained, a woman who was one of the children’s grandmother and two boys.

The RIB proceeded to Beacon 4, the area where Allen believed the survivors would most likely be. The crew spotted a 5-year-old boy lying face up in the water. He was wearing a life jacket, Allen said, but the boy’s head was tipped back into the water, apparently as a result of his wearing a Type III PFD and not a Type I. “It was one of those crappy vests that doesn’t keep a child’s head up if he’s unconscious,” Allen said. They pulled the boy from the water and soon were joined by a Coast Guard rescue swimmer, who jumped from the helicopter to assist in resuscitation efforts. Despite extensive CPR by the Coast Guard rescue swimmer, Allen and the two other Coast Guard personnel, they were unable to revive the boy.

The missing woman, meanwhile, was found to have swum to safety. The body of the 9-year-old boy was found two weeks later near Palacios Point. He had slipped out of his life jacket and drowned, according to the Coast Guard.

“The station took it hard, especially since it was a 5-year-old boy who we couldn’t resuscitate and another child we couldn’t find in time,” the Coast Guard’s Benedict said. “Things were very somber around here. Saving lives is what we do, what we love to do, so to lose someone is the worst thing that can happen. Our hearts go out to those boys’ families.”

By Professional Mariner Staff