Three killed in explosion on Kentucky towboat as it undergoes repairs

William E. Strait

Three people died and four others were seriously injured in an explosion and fire aboard a moored towboat at a repair yard in Calvert City, Ky.

Crews and contractors were working on William E. Strait when it exploded at about 0915 on Jan. 19 at First Marine on the Tennessee River. The blast came from inside the vessel as crews worked to rebuild the 184-foot towboat, according to the Kentucky State Police.

State police and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OHSA) are investigating the incident. The source of the explosion has not been identified.

“The explosion has left damage throughout,” said Jason Strait, vice president of operations for Western Rivers Boat Management of Paducah, Ky., parent company of First Marine and vessel owner Smithland Towing. “We do not know the source at this time.”

The 63-year-old towboat was undergoing substantial repairs after an accident in the Mississippi River near Memphis, Tenn., in December 2015. The vessel partially sank after a barge pushed by another towboat struck William E. Strait from behind.

At least 41 people were working on or near William E. Strait at First Marine just before the explosion. State police said portions of the vessel also ignited from a flash fire that followed the blast.

Repairs to the towboat had been proceeding in various stages since the December 2015 accident, Strait said. Workers from First Marine and the shipyard staffing firm Hutco Inc. were present at the time of the explosion, along with contractors from Thermal Control and Rupke Blasting and Painting Co.

Timothy L. Wright, 52, of Calvert City, Jerome A. Smith, 56, of Thibodaux, La., and Quentin J. Stewart, 41, of Opelousas, La., died in the incident. They were pronounced dead at the scene.

The cause of death for the three men has not been released. However, preliminary results of autopsies conducted the following day “are consistent with each victim’s cause of death resulting from injuries received during the explosion,” Trooper Jody Cash said.

Two people were airlifted to a hospital in Nashville, Tenn., and four others were transported to nearby medical centers with injuries ranging from minor to serious.

Strait said Western Rivers Boat Management was “shocked and saddened” by the accident.

“Our thoughts and prayers are with all who have lost loved ones, for those injured who are recovering with their families, and to all of our employees involved,” Strait said in a prepared statement. “In particular, we send our condolences to the families of First Marine’s Tim Wright.”

“Tim was a very special man whom we loved and respected very much,” Strait said. “We also wish a speedy recovery to Billy Koonce and look forward to the day when he can return to work.”

Koonce was one of the victims airlifted to the Nashville hospital with serious injuries.

OSHA investigators will try to determine the cause of the explosion as well as any health or safety violations that might have preceded it, according to an agency spokesman. Western Rivers said it is cooperating with OSHA’s investigation and has launched an internal inquiry of the accident.

By Professional Mariner Staff