The accident occurred in the early Sunday morning darkness on July 15, 2001. The towboat Elaine G was traveling at about 6 knots down the navigation channel of the river while pushing 14 empty barges when the collision occurred.
“Neither one of the vessels saw each other,” said Lt. Dwayne Adkins, the investigating officer from the U.S. Coast Guard Marine Safety Office in Louisville.
The crew of the towboat did not realize they had struck anything until they heard a cry for help coming from the river.
“They heard a scream for help, but upon investigating, they never saw anybody,” Adkins said. There is no indication the towboat crew heard or felt the actual collision.
Searchers recovered three bodies on Monday, the day after the collision. The last of the six victims wasn’t found until Wednesday.
The Coast Guard held a three-day hearing on the accident at the end of July, but the collision is still under investigation. Key issues include: visibility at the time of the accident, the status of lights aboard the fishing boat, the fishing boat’s profile in the water with regards to its radar signature, and the watchfulness of the occupants of both vessels.
The towboat pilot testified at the hearing that there was fog along the banks but that he could see in front of him. According to Adkins, river conditions were pretty much normal, although there was some fog. “That’s one of the things I’m struggling with. How foggy was it?” Adkins said.
Investigators are also trying to sort out somewhat ambiguous evidence about the stern light on the fishing boat. During the hearing, one witness testified that the boat lacked a stern light several days before the accident. There was also evidence, however, that the fishermen had purchased a new light before the trip that ended in disaster. It is not clear if the light was in place at the time of the accident. “We’re trying to determine if that boat was lighted,” Adkins said.
A receipt for the purchase of the light has been found, according to Adkins, but he is still trying to determine if the light had been installed and working at the time of the accident. “The light wasn’t found on the boat when it was recovered,” he said. “We’re trying to find out if it was on the vessel.”
The fishermen had been using cocaine before the accident, according to Dr. Barbara Weakley-Jones, the Kentucky medical examiner who testified at the hearings. She said blood tests indicated all six had been using cocaine and that some of them had also taken prescription pain medicine. There was evidence of alcohol in their blood, but its presence could have been the result of decomposition, she said.
The towboat’s radar was working but apparently did not pick up the small recreational vessel in its path. The pilot said that he was well rested, alert and monitoring the radar at the time of the collision. However, the small fiberglass boat may not have presented a surface that was reflective enough to produce a distinct image on the radar screen. With six people in the boat, it may have been riding low in the water, further reducing the chance of its showing up on radar.
The absence of a stern light would have further diminished the chances of the towboat pilot’s spotting the fishing boat in the darkness.
The families of the victims have raised questions about the absence of a lookout at the bow of the tow’s lead barges, despite the fog. The pilot was acting as his own lookout at the time of the accident.
The regulations give towboat operators some discretion over the posting of a forward lookout. When visibility is good, one is not required.
The navigation rules require a vessel to have an adequate lookout by sight, hearing and all other appropriate means, Adkins explained.
“Unfortunately, it’s not cut and dry. They have to look at all prevailing conditions,” Adkins said. “We’re still looking into it. It’s fairly complex.”