The accident occurred at around 0230, as the tug was pushing six loaded coal barges upriver toward Pittsburgh. The three survivors of the seven-man crew were rescued by nearby towboats; bodies of three of the victims were recovered at the scene.
According to Karen Auer, spokeswoman for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Pittsburgh District, the tug and its tow were exiting the lock chamber upriver when powerful currents caught the two lead barges, pushing them downstream toward the dam. The tow broke apart, and the six barges began quickly drifting toward the dam.
In an effort to recover the barges and prevent them from going over the dam, the captain of the tug maneuvered behind the barges to push them back upriver and away from danger. The water level in the river was exceptionally high because of heavy rains, and the current was running about 12 knots, approximately four times faster than normal, Auer said. All 10 gates of the dam were open.
Elizabeth M was unable to recover control of the tow and was pushed downriver by the weight of the barges and the swift current. The tug and two of the barges were forced over the top of dam, while the remaining four barges collided with the dam and sank on the upstream side. Elizabeth M sank immediately downstream of the dam, and the two barges sank farther down the river. One of the downriver barges had been recovered, but efforts to salvage the tug and the other barges continued to be hampered by the swift water.
A U.S. Coast Guard inquiry held in Pittsburgh is trying to determine the cause of the accident and may recommend changes to river operating procedures, especially for busy locks like Montgomery, which handles approximately 550 lockages per month.
According to Lt. Cmdr. Darryl Verfaillie, of Coast Guard Marine Safety Office Pittsburgh, the Coast Guard imposed safety restrictions in the vicinity of the dam following the accident, but they were lifted once the water level returned to normal. Verfaillie said there has been an unusually high number of current-related accidents on the river this year. He said the Coast Guard is working with the Army Corps of Engineers and industry to improve safety procedures, not only for areas that are included in the Ohio River Valley Waterways Plan, but for the entire waterway system.
The inquiry is also exploring the possibility of criminal charges if negligence against the captain can be proven. In testimony, the president of the company that owns the 108-foot-tug, Campbell Transportation of Dunlevy, Pa., said the company had assigned an assist tug, Richard C, to help Elizabeth M because of the extraordinarily high water and strong currents.
The captain’s attorney, Fred Thieman, said his client understood there was an assist tug available, should he need it to navigate upriver, but that he was not required to use it. The captain believed the river was “safe for his boat and that his boat was capable of handling six barges,” Thieman said.
A crewmember also testified that crewmembers on another towboat in the area warned Elizabeth M not to try to navigate the rough waters upstream of the locks. Other towboats had remained tied up because of the conditions.
Also being investigated is whether Elizabeth M’s 2,200 hp was sufficient for the load in the prevailing conditions. The Coast Guard will examine the boat’s maintenance and damage history prior to the accident, and the qualifications of the crewmembers who were in the wheelhouse during locking and when the tug went down.