Mariner killed when towboat goes out of control, sinks in swift current

A mariner working on a Mississippi River towing vessel died when the boat capsized and sank near a St. Louis fleeting area in unusually high water.  

The 1,000-hp Charlie Boy was preparing to move barges from one part of the fleeting area to another when the accident occurred at about 1930 on July 19, the Coast Guard said. The vessel sank at mile marker 173 in St. Louis.

The towboat lost control in the current and was pinned against a barge, said Lt. Daniel LiBrando, chief of investigations for Sector Upper Mississippi. Water rushed onto the vessel and it quickly sank. 

Two mariners escaped the sinking tug but the third mariner, whom LiBrando identified as Oliver C. Johnson, never made it off the vessel. Federal, state and local authorities searched for Johnson’s body, which was found inside the vessel. 

As of late September the incident was still under investigation, but authorities believe operator error and high water contributed to the sinking. 

LiBrando said Charlie Boy left a mooring and the operator entered the swift current facing downstream. As he started to execute a turn, “the current caught him and he didn’t have enough time” to correct the vessel’s position. The towboat’s stern swung around in the current, LiBrando added, and it became pinned against one of the barges in the fleeting area, broadside to the current. 

The Coast Guard is trying to determine whether the tugboat performed a “downstreaming” maneuver just prior to the accident, said Lt. Sean Haley, a spokesman for Sector Upper Mississippi.

Downstreaming is “a procedure in which a tugboat moves downstream with the current in order to approach and land on another object, such as a fleet, dock or another tow,” according to a 1999 report by the Quality Action Team comprised of officials from the Coast Guard, American Waterways Operators and other industry groups. 

The maneuver is a relatively common tactic to remove barges from the upstream end of a fleeting area, the report said. But depending on the current and the angle in which the tug meets the barge, the tug can become pinned in some circumstances. 

“In these cases, water may rise up onto the deck and enter the vessel itself through doors and windows. The vessel may capsize and sink, or if it is pinned under the rakes of the barges, be pulled down under the fleet itself,” the 1999 report said. The Coast Guard identified at least 11 sinkings between 1992 and 1997 that occurred as result of downstreaming.

Charlie Boy was built in 1975 and has had several other names over the years, including Leslie Brewer, Stud and Valley Sunshine

According to the 1999 report, three mariners died when Valley Sunshine sank at mile marker 177 on May 16, 1996, in St. Louis. There were no witnesses or survivors. Authorities believe the vessel performed a downstreaming maneuver before the sinking, the report said. 

The Charlie Boy sinking in July occurred during a period of high water and fast currents, Haley said. A few days before the accident, St. Louis area river gauges measured 35 feet, compared to the normal level between 15 and 20 feet. 

The St. Louis Fire Department rescued the two mariners who escaped the sinking tug, the Coast Guard said. They were not hurt. It was not clear if they were wearing life jackets. The fire department and the Missouri State Water Patrol searched for Johnson following the sinking with help from the Coast Guard and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Tugboats and other private vessels helped with the search. 

The Coast Guard closed the river between mile markers 165 and 178 for about a day after the incident to look for the sunken tugboat and the missing crewman. Charlie Boy sank with more than 9,000 gallons of fuel and other oil, but an initial inspection of nearby shorelines found no evidence of a spill. 

Charlie Boy was salvaged about a month after the incident. Johnson’s body was found in a stateroom inside the tugboat. Haley said the salvage was delayed until river levels subsided. 

Osage Marine Services of St. Louis operated Charlie Boy. Messages left for company President James Patterson were not returned.

By Professional Mariner Staff