Off-duty steward on sternwheeler falls from docked vessel and drowns in Columbia River

A crewmember drowned after falling from a sternwheel cruise ship in the Columbia River.

Andres Leshaun “Dre” Staples, 35, was killed in the Aug. 7 incident on Queen of the West. The 221-foot sternwheeler was moored at Rainier, Ore., when the off-duty steward fell into the water at 0105, the U.S. Coast Guard said.

Neither Coast Guard investigators nor vessel operator American Cruise Lines (ACL) had determined the cause of the accident.

“The area he fell from was the main deck aft machinery area near the paddle wheel, an area (in which) he was not authorized to be,” ACL spokesman Tim Beebe said in a written statement in October.

The 120-passenger Queen of the West had completed a voyage from Astoria, Ore., to Rainier on the previous day. It had been docked for about 12 hours, and passengers were aboard at the time of the accident, said Coast Guard spokesman Lt. Lucas Elder.

Staples lived aboard Queen of the West and worked as a galley steward on the boat. He plunged a short distance from the deck into 24 feet of water, with a 3 to 4 knot current, said Elder.

“The victim did fall off the stern while the vessel was docked,” Elder said. “The victim fell 2 to 3 feet to the water from where he was standing. … (He) was not wearing a life vest.”

While most passengers were in their berths asleep, three crewmembers — two deck hands and another galley steward — witnessed the accident, Elder said. The witnesses saw Staples surface once before losing sight of him. He may have struck the sternwheel, they reported.

The Coast Guard is still investigating what activities were taking place on the deck, said Petty Officer Nate Littlejohn, another Coast Guard spokesman.

“This happened after hours when the vessel was tied up at the pier,” Littlejohn said. “The person who fell overboard was not doing anything work-related at the time he fell off.”

Queen of the West is part of ACL’s fleet based in Guilford, Conn. Beebe said the company would have no further comment on the incident until toxicology and Coast Guard investigative reports are available.

Tides were 3 feet above mean lower low water, Elder said.

The wind was blowing at 7 knots. Elder said Queen of the West launched its rescue boat immediately. Fire and sheriff’s vessels from Columbia County arrived next, and a Coast Guard rescue boat and helicopter joined the search along with the tug Maverick.

Staples’ body wasn’t found until five days later, floating in the river about 10 miles downstream, according to the Cowlitz County, Wash., Coroner’s Office. The cause of death was accidental drowning, the coroner’s report said. There was no other injury or trauma to the body. Toxicology reports were negative.

Staples was a native of Birmingham, Ala. He and his family had moved to Nashville, Tenn., according to a newspaper obituary.

Queen of the West had entered day three of a week-long cruise up the Columbia and Snake rivers. The Coast Guard cleared the vessel to continue the voyage later Aug. 7. The modern but old-fashioned-looking sternwheeler, built in 1995, was renovated in 2011.

By Professional Mariner Staff