|Potomac, a 1,700-hp towboar shown here in 2006 photo on Ohio River near Paducah, Ky., had just left Wilson Lock on the Tennessee River when the towboat and its two barges collided with a 32-foot recreational vessel.|
Four people on a recreational boat were killed when the vessel collided with barges being pushed up the Tennessee River along Wilson Lake near Florence, Ala.
The 1,700-hp towboat Potomac had just departed Wilson Lock at 2000 on March 27 when its barges ran over a 32-foot Marinette brand aluminum cruiser. There were two barges â€” each 300 feet by 54 feet â€” in a single string totaling 670 feet, including the towboat.
During a public hearing in April, Potomacâ€™s master stated that the pleasure craft steered in front of his tow without warning.
Capt. Joe M. Johnson said he first noticed the boat as a blip on his radar while traveling up the Tennessee River shortly after departing the lock under â€œdusky to darkâ€ conditions. The towboat and barge navigation lights were on, Johnson said.
â€œI put a light on it and noticed it was a cabin cruiser,â€ Johnson testified during the hearing at the Tennessee Valley Authority. It took about four seconds to see the boat after noticing the radar target and maybe another second to turn his searchlight on the vessel. Within another three seconds the boat rolled under his barges, Johnson said.
â€œAs soon as I shined my light on him, I knew he was headed to try and cross my bow,â€ Johnson recalled. He drew a diagram showing the stricken vessel moving at about a 45-degree angle immediately in front of the port side of his tow.
Although he knew it could take up to a quarter of a mile to stop the tow, Johnson said he immediately reversed Potomacâ€™s twin 850-horsepower diesel engines. He then heard the cruiser banging against the bottom of the towboat. There was no time to sound a warning signal, Johnson stated.
â€œThe cruiser wouldnâ€™t have had time to respond by the time I did that,â€ he said.
Initial accounts gave conflicting reports regarding whether the smaller boat was anchored, adrift or underway when it was run down. Coast Guard Eighth District Public Affairs Officer Stephen Lehman said the initial investigation failed to determine if the stricken vessel was displaying any navigation lights at the time.
Investigators have not determined who was at the helm of the recreational boat.
One victim, reportedly the vesselâ€™s owner, William Hill, Jr., 59, of nearby, Sheffield, Ala., was recovered within two hours of the collision. Two others, Ray Peters, 53 and Patti Jo Manly, 50, both of Hamilton, Ala., were recovered from the wreckage of the blue-and-white-trimmed vessel when it was raised from 80 feet of water two days later. The fourth victim, Mary Hood, 54, also from Hamilton, was found a few days later floating near the scene.
Maryland Marine Inc., of Houston, owns Potomac. Maryland Marine operates a dozen boats almost identical to Potomac, which tows chemicals into a manufacturing facility at Decatur, Ala., 40 miles upstream from Wilson Lock. Many of the 1,800- to 2,000-hp towboats routinely bring two barges loaded with xylene up the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway and up the Tennessee River to Decatur, and then they return the empty barges to the Gulf Coast via the Tennessee, Ohio and Mississippi rivers.
Johnson, with 13 years experience as a pilot, said he has made the round-trip from Texas to Decatur about 60 times during the past five years.
Operations at the navigation lock at Tennessee River Mile 259.4 were curtailed at various times for two days following the accident when the Coast Guard established a safety zone between Mile 259.4 and Mile 263 during search and recovery efforts. Normal operations were re-established March 30.
The fatal collision wasnâ€™t Potomacâ€™s first navigation incident at Lake Wilson. The towboat was responsible for an accident that shut down locking operations at Wilson Lock and Dam in 2006.
It was only a coincidence that this was the same vessel whose barges became entangled in the upstream gate of the lock, causing a three-month shutdown of the facility, said Rick Kessenich, an attorney representing Maryland Marine.
â€œThereâ€™s really no relationship whatsoever between the accidents,â€ Kessenich said. â€œThey involved different captains and different crews and totally different circumstances. We are a safe company. We operate only modern, state-of-the-art equipment.â€
Kessenich said Maryland Marine has an outstanding safety record. The company was conducting its own investigation in this case, he added.
Coast Guard Lt. Cmdr. Eric Denley said information from the hearing and subsequent investigation will be drafted to a report and forwarded to the Commander of the Ohio Valley Coast Guard Sector and then to the Commandant of the Coast Guard. It will then be released to the public.