Crewmember drowns after barge trips tug

One crewmember was killed after a tugboat was capsized by its own barge at the entrance to the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal.

Bay Titan capsized at the entrance to the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal after being tripped by its own towline and barge while trying to turn into the canal. One crewman drowned.

The barge apparently surged past Bay Titan while the tug was making the turn from the Delaware River into the 19-mile canal and pulled it over with its own towline, according to Lt. Cmdr. Dave Ford, senior investigating officer at the U.S. Coast Guard Marine Safety Office in Philadelphia.

Investigators suspect Bay Titan may have been going too fast, given the sharpness of the turn the tug made as it tried to enter the canal. “For the angle of approach, for the rate of turn, the speed was too fast,” Ford said.

The 115-foot, 4,300-hp Bay Titan was making a trip from Brooklyn, N.Y., to Baltimore, Md. when the accident occurred on May 11, 2001. The tug was towing a 370-foot barge loaded with 835,000 gallons of liquid sugar. At the time of the accident, the weather was clear and the seas calm.

Just prior to the accident, the crew shortened the towline to 75-100 feet, down from about 300-400 feet, before making the turn to port and into the canal, said Ford. The barge swung off to starboard and then veered back to port as Bay Titan’s captain went to full power and corrected his course. When the tug straightened out and resumed its normal speed, the barge’s momentum carried it along the port side, tripping the tug with the towline.

When Bay Titan capsized, most of the six members of the crew were in the galley having lunch, said Ford. The captain tried to warn the crew, but the tug capsized and sank in seconds. Two crewmen made it to the pilothouse and escaped out a window. Two others climbed up the bench seats of the nearly vertical galley and escaped via the main deck.

The survivors were taken to Christiana Hospital in Wilmington, Del., where they were treated and released. The body of Steve Pollert, 45, of Suffolk, Va., was recovered from the tug after it was raised and righted.

Bay Titan left Brooklyn at 1300 May 10. The barge was usually pushed from Brooklyn to Baltimore by a tug with a raised pilothouse that allows the helmsman to see over the barge ahead, but that vessel was laid up for repairs.

A tug pushing in the notch of a barge is not susceptible to the kind of accident that befell Bay Titan and its crew. “There’s more control with a tug in a notch,” Ford said. “You’re not going to get a trip of a tow when you’re pushing ahead.”

Drug and alcohol tests indicated that two of the members of the crew had used cocaine. The use of drugs by the crewmembers was not a factor in the accident, according to the Coast Guard. The tests of the captain indicated he had not been using drugs or alcohol. However, the captain was charged with negligence.

“He’s going to have to prove to us that a prudent mariner in the same situation would have done what he did,” Ford said.

Units from the Coast Guard, the Delaware State Police and the Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Protection responded to the capsizing and the loss of the crewmember.

Also responding was the Delaware River and Bay Cooperative, an oil spill clean-up consortium, in case there was any pollution from the 43,000 gallons of diesel fuel aboard Bay Titan.

Salvage operations began on May 17. Bay Titan was lifted off the bottom the next day. The tug, still upside down, was taken to the Reedy Island anchorage, in the Delaware River just south of the canal, where it was righted and the water pumped out. At that point, the Delaware State Police boarded the vessel and located Pollert’s body in the galley.

The tug has been taken to her homeport of Norfolk, Va. “Her hull is intact and in very good shape,” said Ford.

The canal was closed to traffic immediately and not reopened until 0400 May 18.

By Professional Mariner Staff