Master rescued from beneath barge after tug flips in Hudson River

A tugboat captain escaped serious injury when his vessel capsized and the current swept him under a barge in the Hudson River.

Helen Parker, a 31-foot square-bowed tugboat designed like an inland-waters towboat, sank around 1630 on Oct. 13 as its captain was delivering two passengers to an adjacent barge, said Lt. Daniel Every, the Coast Guard investigating officer. The tug's owner is Brewster Marine LLC of Forked River, N.J.

The accident occurred as Trevcon Construction was working on Pier 92 in Manhattan installing a new electrical distribution line under the Hudson River to New Jersey. The company had two barges positioned in the river about 200 feet off the pier. The northernmost barge had two spuds sunk into the riverbed to maintain position while workers were laying down pylons to form a cofferdam to enable divers to do their work. Two tugboats were tied up to the southernmost barge to help position the barges.

For some reason, Every said, possibly because of the additional weight of the two tugboats, one of the spuds bent and was almost severed in the 4-knot ebb current.

"The whole rig spun about the one remaining spud," he said. The two tugs, Elizabeth McAllister and Resolute, powered their engines to try to straighten out and hold the barges in position from their downstream position.

Helen Parker took a foreman and another construction worker out from the pier to the barges to assess the damage from the broken spud. The upriver barge with the spuds was slightly smaller than the second barge. Parker's captain approached from upriver and moved his vessel into the corner where the southern barge extended out beyond the northernmost barge to unload his passengers. He applied power from the 800-hp engine to hold the bow against the barge.

But Every said the two tugboats had difficulty holding the barges perpendicular to the current, "so when he nosed in, the current was coming in on his quarter and that helped turn him. He was there for a couple of seconds and then all of a sudden the starboard side was being pressed against the barge. The draft was deeper on the tugboat than the barge and with the 4-knot current it just sucked the tugboat under."

One of the construction workers who was on the tug's superstructure was able to jump onto the barge. The other worker was on the deck and was trying to reach a large truck tire that served as a fender on the barge, but could not reach it. The worker who jumped to the barge ran over to the tire and managed to grab his coworker and with a barge worker was able to haul him aboard.

"The operator of the Helen Parker was in the wheelhouse when it capsized so fast he didn't have a chance to get out," Every said. "He was thrown around quite a bit and once it was upside down he managed to open the door and get out and he surfaced about 15 feet away and then the current swept him underneath the longer southernmost barge. The tug crews were able to locate him and use life rings to pull him out."

The overturned tug, barely awash, drifted several hundred feet before sinking in the 50-foot-deep river.

The Army Corps of Engineers conducted a side-scan sonar survey and located the tug 100 feet north of the northernmost Lincoln Tunnel tube. Brewster's insurer hired a salvage company that raised the tug and towed it to Liberty Landing Marina in New Jersey for temporary repairs.

By Professional Mariner Staff