Pilot dies after tumbling over the side of moored towboat

Cleon S. DunHurst, 52, drowned when he fell off the towboat John G. Morgan in the Mississippi River. DunHurst had over 30 years of experience as a mariner. (Photo courtesy Sonya D. Kowalski)

An experienced towboat captain was killed when he fell off the bow of his vessel while it was moored in the Mississippi River near Vicksburg, Miss. He was not wearing a life vest.

Cleon S. DunHurst, 52, of Kiln, Miss., was the night-watch pilot on John G. Morgan when he disappeared at 1958 on Sept. 19, 2009. The vessel was tied up a mile north of the Vicksburg bridges.

DunHurst was sitting on the bow rail when he asked a deck hand for a cigarette, witnesses told U.S. Coast Guard and Warren County Sheriff’s investigators. The crewmember gave him a cigarette and then walked away.

“Next thing they knew, he wasn’t on the boat,” said Warren County Coroner Doug L. Huskey. DunHurst’s body was spotted three days later by the crew of the towboat Kansas City, about four miles downriver. Huskey ordered an autopsy, which revealed that “he didn’t have any trauma. It was just an accidental drowning,” the coroner said.

The crew thought perhaps DunHurst had stood up to pull a lighter out of his pocket and slipped, but no one actually saw it happen, and the Coast Guard said the exact circumstances may never be known.

John G. Morgan is operated by Bayou Tugs Inc. of Houma, La. The 64-foot vessel was on the river’s right descending bank, where it was involved in an Army Corps of Engineers erosion-control mat-sinking project, said Lt. Teresa Hatfield, head of the Coast Guard Marine Safety unit at Vicksburg.

“There is a little chute up there that the Army Corps uses to load and offload equipment for the mat-sinking unit,” Hatfield said. “At that time, they were stopped for the evening. They were tied off to some barges.”

Huskey and Hatfield confirmed that DunHurst wasn’t wearing a life vest. DunHurst had over 30 years of experience as a mariner on the inland rivers. He had been a licensed captain for about six years.

Hatfield said there were no adverse weather or currents at the time of the accident. Lacking firsthand witnesses, the Coast Guard may close the case without identifying the exact reason DunHurst plunged into the water.

“There was no way to make a determination,” Hatfield said. “No one saw him, and we will probably never know what caused him to fall into the river.”

Policies for mandatory life-vest use vary by company. “Obviously, you should be wearing a vest anytime you’re outside the cabin,” Hatfield said.

Bayou Tugs President Russell P. Naquin didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Dom Yanchunas

By Professional Mariner Staff