Towboat deck hand in Alabama dies after falling overboard during a smoking break

A deck hand taking a smoke break was killed when he fell off the main deck of a towboat in Alabama’s Black Warrior River. Witnesses said he was not wearing a life vest.

The accident was reported March 13 at 0140 while Charles Haun was navigating upriver at Walker County. The body of Thomas Willis Lindley Jr., 34, was found in the 40-foot-deep river eight days later.

The 75-foot towboat was pushing six coal barges from a mine near Tuscaloosa, Ala., toward the Gorgas Steam Plant when fellow crew discovered that Lindley was missing, said Lt. Erica Shipman of the Alabama Marine Police.

“He had stepped out of the starboard galley door to smoke a cigarette, and that was the last that anyone recalled seeing him," Shipman said. “It is presumed that he fell overboard. … When he was last seen, he was not wearing a life vest."

The towboat’s owner is Parker Towing Co. of Tuscaloosa. A total of six crewmembers were aboard. Parker’s executive vice president, Charles A. Haun, said Lindley had six months of experience on vessels.

Charles Haun’s voyage began at 2355 on March 12. Water conditions were calm and the weather was cloudy, Shipman said. The air temperature was 48° and the water was 54°. Rain was approaching, but Haun said the decks were dry at the time.

The initial missing-person report triggered an intensive search along the river between mile markers 388 and 399. Authorities dredged the area and pulled up Lindley’s jacket and one shoe. The weeklong search, which included the use of side-scan sonar, failed to locate him. Finally, two fishermen spotted the floating body March 21. Autopsy results may not be available for a few months, the Jefferson County Coroner’s office said.

Shipman said mariners “most definitely" should wear floatation devices while underway. “We, as safety officers, always recommend that people wear their life jackets," she said. “People do find themselves unexpectedly in the water."

Haun said his mariners are required to wear life vests while they are on barges, but not on the towboat. He said it’s actually quite difficult to fall off the towboat’s decks, because they are surrounded by railings and a double set of safety chains. Parker crews attend two safety meetings per month, and they are being cautioned as a result of this fatality, Haun said.

“We intensified our safety meetings, and they call for everybody to be situationally aware," Haun said. “Keep your eyes open."

Haun said his company and the Marine Police inspected Charles Haun repeatedly to see if they could find any sign of a problem with the rails or chains. Nothing was amiss, he said.

“I’m afraid I’m never going to know what happened," Haun said.

By Professional Mariner Staff