Two crewmen presumed dead after towboat sinks in New Orleans

Natalie Jean

Two crewmen were missing and presumed dead after their towboat capsized and sank in the swollen Mississippi River in New Orleans.

The victims were identified as Malon Dawsey of Pearlington, Miss., and Karl Prince of Houma, La. The men were aboard the 64-foot Natalie Jean when it capsized and sank at mile marker 90.5, near the New Orleans General Anchorage, at about 0945 on March 12. The towboat Earl Gonsoulin rescued a third crewman who fell overboard.

Independent surveyor and port captain Ron Campana II witnessed the incident from the crew boat Shawn M. Konrad. He said Natalie Jean was northbound along the west bank pushing an empty tank barge when it turned to navigate between two anchored ships.

Suddenly, the towboat started fishtailing in the 5- to 6-knot current and snagged an anchor chain from one of the ships. Natalie Jean sank bow-first in a matter of seconds.

“It started to turn toward the starboard side and I want to say it was probably a quarter of the way into it, and then next thing we know it is … getting dragged on top of the anchor chain,” he said. “It almost appeared that when they tried to come through, they got caught in something or had engine problems, but they were rapidly thrown back into the bow anchor chain.”

Some of the face lines connecting the towboat to the barge snapped. The remaining lines likely caused the vessel to go under bow-first, Campana said. “If I had to guess, from the time she went bow-in to the time she was completely submerged was 10 seconds or less.”

The U.S. Coast Guard is leading the investigation into the accident and at press time had released few details. A spokesman declined to comment, citing the inquiry.

The incident occurred during a period of high water and fast current. The Carrollton gauge, located a few miles upriver from the site of the sinking, measured 16.57 feet at 1000 on March 12. Flood stage is 17 feet.

The 37-year-old Natalie Jean, owned by Creole Chief Inc. of Harvey, La., was still underwater at the anchorage one week after the capsizing. Ricky Boyett, spokesman for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in New Orleans, confirmed that the agency knew where the vessel was, but he declined to divulge the exact location.

“We don’t want to do anything that will interfere with the investigation,” he said in mid-March.

Campana was shooting a cellphone video when he spotted the surviving crewmember, identified as the captain, among debris in the water. The man was not wearing a life jacket, although he was wearing a life ring from Natalie Jean.

Shawn M. Konrad, operated by Belle Chasse Marine Transportation of Harahan, La., maneuvered toward the man and Campana threw him a line.

“He’s in complete shock and can’t grab the line, and I can’t reach him with the gaff,” Campana recalled. “So I got my legs in (the water) enough to grab him with the gaff and swung him to the Earl Gonsoulin.”

Earl Gonsoulin is operated by LeBeouf Bros. Towing of Bourg, La.

The Coast Guard closed the river from mile marker 89 to mile marker 90.5 after the accident to conduct a search. Authorities and numerous good Samaritan vessels, including Shawn M. Konrad, searched for Dawsey and Prince from the air and water. The operation was called off on March 14 after 43 hours.

Dawsey, 72, was a lifelong mariner who is survived by his wife and two adult sons. He came from a maritime family and enjoyed working on the water, according to a niece, Dallie Dawsey.

“My family has a saying,” she said. “A seaman has three places where he would prefer to die. One is sitting at a bar, the other is a (brothel) and the third is on a tugboat.”

Additional information about Prince could not be found.

Phone and email messages left with Creole Chief Inc. were not returned.

By Professional Mariner Staff