Pilot swims for his life as towboat sinks in swollen Ohio River

The pilot of a towing vessel working to secure a deck barge on the swollen Ohio River was forced to swim to safety after the towboat took on water and sank in the strong current.

The 53-foot Jo Ann McGinnis was tending to the barge, which was being used as a work station, at about 2200 on March 8 when the towboat went down, the U.S. Coast Guard reported. The river was about 15 feet above flood stage where the incident occurred, at mile 332 between the towns of Greenup and Wurtland, Ky.

Petty Officer 3rd Class Daniel Wheeler, a Coast Guard spokesman at Marine Safety Unit Huntington (W.Va.), said the pilot and a deck hand on the towboat were trying to secure the barge by moving it closer to shore.

"(The pilot) had just dropped off the deck hand on the dock," Wheeler said. "The boat began taking on water 200 to 300 meters downstream while the pilot was turning. The water came over the deck."

Wheeler said the pilot was able to put on a life jacket before abandoning ship, but was unable to call for help. The deck hand reported the incident by marine radio.

While the boat sank only 10 to 15 feet from the river's normal shoreline, the pilot had to swim at least 200 feet due to the flood conditions and swift current, Wheeler said. It took him nearly 20 minutes.

The man was "slightly hypothermic" when he made it ashore, Wheeler said. Responders from the Wurtland Fire Department arrived shortly afterward, but the pilot did not require hospitalization.

Russ Painter, a spokesman for the towboat's owner, McGinnis Inc., of South Point, Ohio, described the current as "furious" at the time of the sinking. The Coast Guard reported that the river was flowing at 3.6 mph.

"He got the front end of the boat past the barge into that current and he just kind of felt it rear back on him," Painter said.

Painter described the pilot as a "œreal calm, cool-mannered guy" who has been employed by McGinnis since 1995. The pilot could not be reached for comment.

"Nothing like this had happened to him before," Painter said. "This is his very first incident of any kind."

Painter said personnel from River Salvage of Crescent, Pa., had to wait until March 23 to recover the towboat due to the flood conditions.

"If it hadn't been as close to the shoreline as it was, we would have had to have waited longer," he said.

The vessel had not been returned to service by the end of May, and Painter did not say when repairs would be completed. He declined to provide an estimate of the water damage.

Wheeler said drug and alcohol tests conducted on the pilot and deck hand were negative.

By Professional Mariner Staff