Towboat master in collision with fishing boat charged with homicide

The master of a Tennessee River towboat has been charged with criminally negligent homicide as a result of a 2010 collision that killed two occupants of a recreational fishing boat.

A grand jury indicted Charles Warren Luetke, 39, of Soddy-Daisy, Tenn., in February. The Serodino Inc. captain faces two counts of criminally negligent homicide in the June 19, 2010, crash involving the towing vessel Bearcat and a 16-foot runabout on Chickamauga Lake.

Luetke also was charged with failure to render aid in a boat accident, a felony, and negligent operation of a vessel, a misdemeanor. All of the counts are state charges, said Glenn Moates, assistant chief of the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency's boating division.

Investigators probed whether Bearcat had a proper lookout and whether its crew noticed anything indicating that they might have struck something but didn't stop, according to an affidavit of complaint and indictment documents.

The grand jury said Luetke "failed to render to all other persons affected by the accident such assistance as may be practicable and as may be necessary in order to save them from or to minimize any danger caused by the accident." The indictment added that Luetke "knew or reasonably should have known that death resulted from the accident."

Bearcat was pushing nine barges — configured in three strings of three — when a 200-foot hopper barge struck the fishing boat. The total size of the tow was 595 feet long and 105 feet wide, according to the Wildlife Resources Agency's accident report. The Glastron pleasure craft was adrift while its three occupants were tending to a trotline.

The accident happened at 1730 in clear weather, said U.S. Coast Guard investigator Chief Warrant Officer John Hoesli.

The state accident report said Bearcat was sailing downriver at 5.1 mph. The fishing boat's occupants were pulling their vessel along the trotline as they retrieved fish and re-baited. They saw the approaching tow when it was about 100 yards away.

The operator "tried unsuccessfully to start the motor on his boat to remove them from the path of the oncoming vessel while another occupant of the vessel attempted to contact (Bearcat) by waving (his) arms and yelling," the state report said. "When the motor … would not start, the occupants unsuccessfully tried to paddle out of the path of the oncoming vessel."

The fishing boat was struck, overturned and was forced under the barges. Fishermen Richard Wilkey, 52, and Tim Spidle, 45, drowned. A third occupant, the vessel's operator, was trapped under the barge but eventually popped back up and survived.

Luetke didn't stop the 1,500-hp Bearcat at the time of the accident. A law-enforcement vessel flagged the tow down a short time later.

"He told us that he didn't know that he hit anything," Hoesli said. The master was in the wheelhouse at the time of the collision, he said.

The Coast Guard is still investigating whether Bearcat had a proper lookout. Hoesli said the Coast Guard is considering the master's sight lines from the wheelhouse and also whether festival-related activity on the river should have prompted the crew to expect extra vessel traffic and take additional precautions.

U.S. navigation rules call for vessel operators to use all available means to see what's in front of them, including sight, radar and/or another person.

"On vessels such as towboats, an operator can safely serve as his own lookout if he has a 360° unobstructed view," Hoesli said. "It depends on their visibility."

The state's accident report said Luetke's vision was obstructed.

The report said drug tests revealed that the operator of the fishing boat had marijuana in his system. Both of the men who died were legally drunk, and one of them had smoked marijuana.

While the local authorities pursued criminal charges against Luetke, the case has not been referred to the Coast Guard Investigative Service for a criminal probe, Hoesli said.

Luetke turned himself in and posted $5,000 bond. He pleaded innocent to all charges. No trial date has been announced. His lawyer, Sam Hudson, said the fishermen's alcohol and drug use is what doomed them.

"Mr. Luetke's operation of the Bearcat was not the cause of these boaters' deaths," Hudson said. "What caused these deaths was their intentional decision to be on the river in the middle of the navigation channel, and being intoxicated and impaired as well."

Serodino, based in Chattanooga, has filed court papers attempting to limit its civil liability. The papers, filed in December 2010, blame the fishermen for their own deaths. Serodino officials didn't respond to a request for comment.

By Professional Mariner Staff