A tank-barge deck hand is lucky to be alive after he fell into the frigid Illinois River and was rescued about a half-hour later.
The towboat MV Anderson was pushing two tank barges downriver below the Dresden Lock and Dam on Dec. 11, 2009, when the captain intentionally bumped the vessels into a lift bridgeâ€™s fender, the U.S. Coast Guard said. A 22-year-old deck hand was knocked into the water.
The crewman, who was wearing a float vest, drifted about a half-mile downstream. The towâ€™s emergency skiff wasnâ€™t operating properly, and it took 30 to 35 minutes for a local fire-and-rescue vessel and the lock crewâ€™s boat to locate him.
The accident happened at 1735 at the Elgin, Joliet & Eastern (EJ&E) Railway lift bridge in Grundy County, Ill.
â€œThey came through the lock and dam, and the barge hands were out securing everything, and they hit the pier, and it knocked him off-balance and knocked him into the water,â€ said Coal City Fire Chief Harold Holsinger.
Itâ€™s customary for downbound tows to land on the bridge fender in a â€œvery slow, very controlledâ€ maneuver before pivoting to line up for the lift-bridge transit, said Lt. Larry Ouzts, chief of investigations at Coast Guard Marine Safety Unit Chicago. The bows of the barges made contact in this case, he said.
â€œThey were making a controlled landing on the bridge because of the turn in the river and the angle at which that bridge crosses the river,â€ Ouzts said. â€œThey are able to lay up so they can make the turn. Otherwise, itâ€™s so tight that if they didnâ€™t do it in a controlled manner, it can be more dangerous.â€
Ouzts said the Coast Guard is still investigating what caused the deck hand to fall into the water. Communication on the tow and the crewâ€™s safety practices are among the issues under examination.
The 2,000-hp Anderson is 72 feet long. Both barges â€” WTC 3016 and WTC 3017 â€” are 298 feet long and 54 feet wide. The vesselsâ€™ owner is Waxler Transportation Co., based in Memphis, Tenn. Company officials didnâ€™t respond to a request for comment.
The deck handâ€™s life was in danger as a result of the fall, Holsinger said. The air temperature that evening was below freezing, and the water temperature was probably in the 30s or 40s.
â€œIt was pitch dark, and heâ€™s swimming in the river,â€ the fire chief said. â€œHe had a floatation device. It saved his life â€” no doubt in my mind.â€
Dresden Lockâ€™s Jon boat and a rescue vessel from the nearby Morris Fire Department located the victim almost simultaneously, Holsinger said. The lock boat transported him to a riverbank for medical treatment.
â€œHe was cold and wet, but he was able to walk out of there on his own,â€ Holsinger said. â€œThey got him in the ambulance and got him warmed up. They used all the hot packs they had.â€
The deck hand was hospitalized for only a few hours. He returned to work a couple of days later.
â€œIt turned out a heck of a lot better than I was afraid it was going to,â€ Holsinger said.
The EJ&E bridgeâ€™s owner, Canadian National Railway Co., didnâ€™t report any damage to the fender or bridge pier.