Towboat loses power, hits Ohio River dam before drifting through

Eight crewmembers escaped from an upbound towboat that lost propulsion on the Ohio River and drifted through a dam near Belleville, W.Va.

The empty gravel barge being guided by the towboat became pinned against the dam, right, before passing through during the night.

The 1,800-hp Edith Tripp struck the Belleville Dam at about 1300 on March 3 before passing through one of the structure’s open gates. The towboat’s empty hopper barge, which was not identified, became wedged against the dam before passing through early the next morning.

Both vessels sustained minor damage in the incident. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers awaited lower water to survey the dam located at mile 203.9.

The Coast Guard is investigating the propulsion issue aboard Edith Tripp. Preliminary reports suggest debris became lodged in the vessel’s single propeller.

“It was a mechanical failure in which something caught in the propeller and caused the clutch to basically seize up and burn out,” said Coast Guard Lt. Noel Shriner, head of the Prevention Division for Marine Safety Unit Huntington (W.Va.). 

Crounse Corp. of Paducah, Ky., operates the 93-foot Edith Tripp. The company did not respond to an inquiry about the incident.

The river was at minor flood stage when the incident occurred. The tow locked through at Belleville and was roughly a half-mile upriver from the dam when Edith Tripp’s propulsion failed, Shriner said. The current, moving at up to 10 knots, pushed the tow back toward the dam.

Crew aboard the towboat recognized the gravity of their situation. They lowered the skiff and ferried five members to safety in two parties. The captain, engineer and second engineer stayed on board to attempt to regain control of the tow. They were the last to leave the 45-year-old Edith Tripp before it made contact with the dam.

“The starboard quarter made contact with one of the dam pilings, and that impact caused the wires to break between the barge and the towing vessel,” Shriner said. “The towing vessel proceeded to go through the dam, and the barge got wedged at an angle between one piling and another.”

Edith Tripp went through the dam stern first. It drifted about 15 miles downriver before the rescue tug Miss Thatcher corralled it. Miss Thatcher also rounded up the hopper barge after it broke free during the night and passed through the dam, said Jamie Jones, the emergency management director for Meigs County, Ohio.

Neither vessel is believed to have hit anything while drifting downriver. Jones said there are campgrounds along the banks and other riverside infrastructure, but there are no fixed crossings until the Ravenswood Bridge at mile 221. Miss Thatcher rounded up the drifting vessels upriver from the span.

Edith Tripp “came to shore a couple of times, but with the water being so high, basically it bounced off the trees and down the river it went,” Jones said. “With the height of the river … if there were any permanent docks, they were well below the water level and the vessel would have gone right over top of them.”

The Belleville Locks and Dam facility was built in the early 1960s. It has eight tainter gates that can be raised and lowered to control flows, according to the Army Corps of Engineers. The gates were fully open at the time of the incident due to high water, which allowed the vessels to pass through.

The incident didn’t affect operations at the dam, Army Corps spokesman Brian Maka said in early March. “There was no noticeable damage. Once the water recedes they will be able to inspect it more closely.”

By Professional Mariner Staff