Deck hand drowns after falling off barge during fleeting operation

An experienced deck hand fell off an empty barge and drowned in the Mississippi River while a fleeting crew was moving barges around near Davenport, Iowa.

Emil Schaeffer, 35, of Davenport, was killed at about 2200 on May 19 at the Blackhawk Fleet in Buffalo, Iowa. Investigators said Schaeffer was trapped briefly beneath a loaded hopper barge and could not be revived after he resurfaced.

The U.S. Coast Guard and local police said Schaeffer was last seen walking along an empty barge about 30 feet behind another crewman, who heard a splash, ran aft and tried in vane to pull Schaeffer from the water.

The 1,000-hp towing vessel Lauren was faced up to the empty barge while the crew were preparing to move the barge to another vessel. Lauren was not yet underway when the accident happened, said Coast Guard Lt. John Martin, the investigating officer based at Rock Island, Ill.

Schaeffer probably "lost his balance or tripped," said Sgt. T.J. Behning of the Buffalo Police Department. There was no collision, and no debris or hazards were found on the empty barge. There was no rain to cause a wet surface.

"They were moving one barge and getting ready to put them in line and move them," Behning said. "He was walking up the left side of an unloaded barge, and his first mate was in front of him, and they had a loaded barge to their left. The mate heard a splash and saw Emil in the water. He did go underneath the loaded barge."

The loaded barge's cargo was crushed stone, and it was drawing 9 feet, Martin said. The current was at 6 knots and the weather was clear.

The other crewman, who is tall, was just barely able to reach down and briefly grab Schaeffer's fingertips, but the dry crewman had nothing to hold onto to brace himself and risked falling into the water too, Martin said.

"He … got ahold of Emil's hand by three fingers," Martin said. "Emil slipped out and went under the rake of the barge. The current was pretty strong, and the current's even faster right under the rake — more like 10 knots right by the barge because of the swirl."

Schaeffer, who had four or five years' experience, was wearing a work vest and steel-toe boots. He resurfaced 100 feet aft a minute or two later, unresponsive. A skiff picked him up, but CPR didn't revive him and neither could paramedics. Martin said the cause of death was drowning.

The barges were 195 feet by 35 feet. The Coast Guard confirmed that no hazards were found.

The empty barge "had a clean deck and handrail (and) cable along the coaming and was in good repair," Martin said.

"We have definitely reviewed all of our policies, and we had just undergone a responsible-operator third-party audit," said Alter's president, Larry Daily. "We just continue to stress our message of safety and teamwork."

Martin said the accident probably could have been avoided.

"There was a handrail. If he was holding onto it, would he have fallen in? I doubt it," Martin said.

"A lot of the guys think they're not going to get wet, and when they fall into the water, they panic a little bit. Stay aware of your surroundings, plan on going in the water and keep a level head if you go in."

Dom Yanchunas

By Professional Mariner Staff