A newly hired deck hand aboard a towboat on the Tennessee River died after he fell off a barge that was being maneuvered through a lock in Florence, Ala.
Randal Wayne Lipford, 35, of Shiloh, Tenn., was helping co-workers on MV Lonny Fugate guide a group of barges through the lock at the Wilson Dam on April 11 when he fell into the water. Lipford, who had been employed by Tennessee Valley Towing of Paducah, Ky., for 11 days, died from blunt force trauma to the head, according to Lauderdale County coroner Andy High.
Video provided by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which operates the lock, showed that Lipfordâ€™s death was accidental, said Chief Warrant Officer John Hoesli of the U.S. Coast Guardâ€™s Marine Safety Office in Nashville, Tenn.
â€œVideo cameras are set up to provide different angles to assist the lock operator,â€ Hoesli said. â€œThe Corps showed us the footage, but we canâ€™t comment on the cause of the accident until our investigation is complete.â€
Lonny Fugate was escorting 15 barges upriver when the accident occurred. Restricted by the length of the lock, the barges â€” arranged in a grouping five long and three wide â€” were divided into two cuts. The towboat pushed nine barges into the lock on the first cut, then backed out to line up the remaining six. The first nine barges were still in the lock chamber when Lipford, who was working on the aft starboard barge, fell into the water.
Hoesli said conditions were good at the time of the 1830 accident â€” clear skies, light winds and adequate lighting â€” and that the victim was wearing a life jacket. Crewmembers pulled Lipford out of the water and attempted to resuscitate him, with local emergency medical technicians following suit shortly afterward, but their efforts were unsuccessful.
Lipford had been employed by American Commercial Lines until 2006, working his way up from a deck hand to become a towboat operator. He was not employed in the industry again until this year, Hoesli said.
â€œWhat weâ€™re trying to determine is if he had worked on rivers with locks, and what kind of training he had,â€ Hoesli said. â€œDid he work on the lower Mississippi, which doesnâ€™t have locks and dams, or did he work on a river system with lots of locks and dams, like the Ohio, Cumberland or Tennessee?â€
Sarah McGee, general counsel for James Marine, the parent company of Tennessee Valley Towing, said Lipford did not undergo training with TVT and was hired as â€œan experienced deck crew member.â€ She said the company could not comment on the cause of the accident due to the ongoing investigation. Officials at American Commercial Lines could not be reached for comment.
Wilson Dam is one of nine on the Tennessee River with locks to allow vessels to travel from Knoxville, Tenn., to Paducah, Ky. The river drops 513 feet along the 652-mile stretch, eventually emptying into the Ohio River at Paducah.
â€œObviously, locking through has its own inherent dangers, but the guys who work on the boats say itâ€™s actually more dangerous on the river than in the lock chambers,â€ Hoesli said. â€œThere are a lot more variables.â€