Three boaters killed in collision with tow in waterway near Chicago

Three boaters were thrown from their recreational craft and died after a nighttime collision with a barge in the Cal-Sag Channel south of Chicago.

The incident occurred at about 2300 on June 20 as the 66-foot Bill Arnold, an uninspected towing vessel, guided six barges east. A crewmember notified U.S. Coast Guard Sector Lake Michigan that there had been a collision near mile marker 311 of the channel, which links the Little Calumet River and the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal.

The 19-foot pleasure boat — carrying Bob Bielarz, 39, and his wife Viengsavanh, 40, both of Orland Park, Ill., and Jeremy Muzika, 33, of Palos Hills, Ill. — struck the lead port-side barge in the two-by-three tow, according to the Illinois Conservation Police (ICP). The barges were loaded with pig iron and were bound from Lemont, Ill., to South Chicago.

It was not immediately known how many people were aboard the boat. A search ensued and the channel was closed to vessel traffic between mile markers 308 and 315. Shortly afterward a crew from the Palos Hills Fire Department located a part from the boat that included vessel identification.

A 25-foot response boat was dispatched from Coast Guard Station Calumet Harbor and a helicopter was requested from Air Facility Waukegan, but air crews initially were unable to assist in the search due to fog. Crews from the Illinois Department of Natural Resources also responded, along with police and fire department personnel from the cities of Worth and Lockport.

Searchers recovered the bodies of Viengsavanh Bielarz and Muzika on the afternoon of June 21. The body of Bob Bielarz was recovered two days later. None of the victims were wearing life jackets, the Coast Guard said. Autopsies conducted by the Cook County Medical Examiner’s Office revealed that all three died of drowning and multiple injuries due to the collision.

The speed of the pleasure boat at the time of the incident has not been determined, said Chris Young, a spokesman for the state’s Department of Natural Resources. The barges were lighted to Coast Guard standards and there was no fog when the collision occurred, he said.

No damage was reported to the barge or Bill Arnold. The towing vessel is owned by American River Transportation Co., a subsidiary of Decatur, Ill.-based Archer Daniels Midland Co.

The Coast Guard conducted drug and alcohol tests on the six crewmembers aboard Bill Arnold, with the results negative, the ICP reported. It was undetermined if the pleasure boaters had any drugs or alcohol in their systems at the time of the crash.

By Professional Mariner Staff