Four tug crewmen killed in collision with ship near C&D Canal

Four crewmen were killed when their tugboat, which was escorting three barges, collided with a 520-foot bulk carrier in dense fog near the southern entrance of the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal.

Kastner lies aground in Elk River following a collision in the fog with a convoy of tugs and dredge barges.

The collision between A.V. Kastner and the tugboat Swift occurred Feb. 25 in a 450-foot-wide channel in the Elk River that connects the upper Chesapeake with the C&D canal.

The 520-foot Kastner, under the guidance of a bay pilot, had just exited the canal and was headed south for Baltimore with 18,000 tons of gypsum.

Swift was going north in the company of another tugboat, Buchanan 14. They were shepherding an equipment barge, a dredging barge and a derrick barge, with 500 feet of flexible dredging hose strung out behind.

Buchanan 14 was in the lead. Swift was located on the port side toward the rear, but its exact position in the tow remains uncertain, according to Lt. Cmdr. Mark Hammond, chief of the Investigations and Intelligence Division at Coast Guard Activities Baltimore.

“There is conflicting information, depending on whom you talk to, with regard to the exact configuration of the ‘dredge convoy’ at the time of the incident that has yet to be reconciled,” Hammond said. “We have a good idea of how things may have been positioned, but I would not feel comfortable at this point to say what the exact configuration was.”

The tugs and their barges were bound for a dredging job at Delaware City, Del., at the eastern end of the 14-mile-long canal.

Swift sank in minutes, trapping Ronald Bonniville, of Hayes, Va., and Clarence McConnell, of McClellanville, S.C., in the forward berthing space. Swift’s captain, William “Bo” Bryant, of Virginia Beach, Va., and his nephew, Justin Bryant, of Supply, N.C., made it overboard, but were apparently dragged under by the sinking tug. Their bodies had not been found by early April.

Three men escaped from the sinking Swift and were pulled from the 43° water by rapidly converging rescuers. They were treated for minor injuries and released the same day.

Buchanan 14 and Kastner both ran aground at the edges of the channel. Both vessels were refloated with a minimum of structural and environmental damage.

The U.S. Coast Guard is investigating the collision, which ranks as one of the most deadly shipping accidents on the Chesapeake Bay since M/V Santa Cruz II and the Coast Guard cutter Cuyahoga collided near Yorktown, Va., in 1978 with the loss of 10 Coast Guardsmen.

While the results of the official investigations aren’t likely to be released until fall, three elements present themselves as possible contributors to the Elk River collision: the fog, the current and the maneuverability of the long line of barges and dredge hose.

Swift is raised by McLean Contracting Co.’s derrick barge Jamestown.

Tom Putney, who watched the tragedy unfold from his backyard at Town Point, on a 50-foot bluff overlooking the Elk and the Bohemia, said the fog that morning was not an uncommon event. It forms in the shallow, sun-warmed water of Piney Creek Cove, opposite Town Point, and then spreads over the Elk River.

“It’s a low-lying fog,” Putney said. “One can see the superstructure and upper works of large ships on the river exchanging foghorn signals with tugs that are too low to be seen.”

Kastner was under the direction of a member of the Association of Maryland Pilots. According to a statement from the association, the pilot and Buchanan 14 spoke with one another on the radio at about 0638 as Kastner was exiting the C&D, and they agreed on a port-to-port meeting — with the bulk carrier to pass on the northwest side of the channel and the tugs and their barges on the southeast side.

Capt. Eric Nielson, president of the pilots’ association, said that the ship was properly positioned on its side of the channel. “The Kastner was steady on the far right side of the channel, and they collided on that side,” he said.

Kastner and Buchanan 14 apparently briefly lost radar contact as they neared a bend in the river at Old Town Point. The fog closed in and obscured everyone’s vision at the worst possible time. The tugs and barges were contending with a following current that could have made it difficult to control the convoy.

“The slower you go with a ship or a tow, the harder it is to control,” said Capt. Allen Baker of Baltimore, a veteran Chesapeake Bay tugboat skipper. “It wouldn’t take much for the tail end of the tow to drift out.”

The tow may have slowed and lost at least some steerageway, said Baker. “You don’t take a 1,000-foot tow through the canal when a ship is coming,” he said. “It would not take much, if they were treading water, to get in trouble.”

The tide was flowing northward from the Chesapeake Bay into the Elk River, past a constriction near Town Point that dramatically alters the speed of the current and perhaps its direction as well.

Hammond said the Coast Pilot indicates a current of .8 knots at the mouth of the Elk, increasing to 2 or 3 knots as it nears the C&D Canal.

Hammond said the current does not deviate from the axis of the channel, but both Nielson, of the pilots’ association, and Putney report that there are some slight changes in direction as the current passes Town Point.

Rescuers from throughout the area began converging on the accident scene within minutes of the collision. The Coast Guard dispatched vessels from Baltimore and Philadelphia and a helicopter from its air station at Cape May, N.J. State and local police and medical groups responded, as did a unit from the U.S. Army’s Aberdeen Proving Ground on the western shore of the Chesapeake.

Rescue divers from Baltimore and Cecil County, Md., managed to reach Swift later that afternoon in hopes of recovering bodies. They had to abandon their efforts, however, when they found the sunken tugboat resting on its starboard side in an unstable condition.

The two bodies were not recovered until nine days after the accident, when Swift was raised by Ellsworth Salvage of Camden, N.J.

Ellsworth was hired by Norfolk Dredging Company of Chesapeake., Va., which owns Swift and the barges. Buchanan 14 is owned by Buchanan Marine of Norfolk, Va.

By Professional Mariner Staff