Life vest plays vital role in rescue of towboat deck hand from river

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 bridge’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 tow’s emergency skiff wasn’t operating properly, and it took 30 to 35 minutes for a local fire-and-rescue vessel and the lock crew’s boat to locate him.

The accident happened at 1735 at the Elgin, Joliet & Eastern (EJ&E) Railway lift bridge in Grundy County, Ill.

“They 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,†said Coal City Fire Chief Harold Holsinger.

It’s customary for downbound tows to land on the bridge fender in a “very slow, very controlled†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.

“They 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,†Ouzts said. “They are able to lay up so they can make the turn. Otherwise, it’s so tight that if they didn’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 crew’s safety practices are among the issues under examination.

The 2,000-hp Anderson is 72 feet long. Both barges — WTC 3016 and WTC 3017 — are 298 feet long and 54 feet wide. The vessels’ owner is Waxler Transportation Co., based in Memphis, Tenn. Company officials didn’t respond to a request for comment.

The deck hand’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.

“It was pitch dark, and he’s swimming in the river,†the fire chief said. “He had a floatation device. It saved his life — no doubt in my mind.â€

Dresden Lock’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.

“He was cold and wet, but he was able to walk out of there on his own,†Holsinger said. “They 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.

“It turned out a heck of a lot better than I was afraid it was going to,†Holsinger said.

The EJ&E bridge’s owner, Canadian National Railway Co., didn’t report any damage to the fender or bridge pier.

Dom Yanchunas

By Professional Mariner Staff