Two fishermen die in collision with towboat, barges on the Tennessee

Two fishermen were killed when a 200-foot hopper barge plowed into their disabled recreational boat on the Tennessee River.

The accident involving the towboat Bearcat happened at about 1730 on June 19 just upriver from Chattanooga, Tenn. U.S. Coast Guard investigators said Bearcat was pushing nine barges when a lead barge struck the fishing boat, which was drifting in the navigation channel.

One of the three fishermen aboard the 16-foot runabout survived, but only after being trapped underneath a barge before eventually popping up to the surface.

The three men had been laying trout lines in 30 to 40 feet of water in the pool above Chickamauga Dam, said Chief Warrant Officer John Hoesli, a casualty investigator at the Coast Guard’s Marine Safety Detachment Nashville.

“They were in the process of checking the trout line and resetting it,†Hoesli said. “When they do that, they actually turn the engine off and they kind of pull themselves along. When they went to start the engine again, it wouldn’t start.â€

At that point, Bearcat’s tow was only 100 yards away. The barges, some of which were 200 feet long and others 195 feet, were arranged in three rows. Seven of the barges were empty, while the other two contained dry cargo, Hoesli said.

The 1,500-hp triple-screw Bearcat was sailing at 5 mph, Hoesli said. The fishermen never radioed to the towboat crew. A state marine patrol flagged Bearcat down a short time after the collision, and investigators interviewed the crew.

“According to them, they did not realize they had hit anything,†Hoesli said.

The 76-foot Bearcat and barges are owned and operated by Serodino Inc. of Chattanooga. Company owner Pete Serodino, through his secretary, declined to comment on the accident.

The shipping channel is at least a half-mile wide in that area and is marked by buoys. Visibility was clear, Hoesli said. The 1977 Glastron recreational boat had a 70-hp outboard motor.

After the towboat T-boned the fishing boat, one of the trio of fishermen went under the port lead barge, Hoeli said. He bounced along underneath, possibly the entire length of the barge, before emerging at the surface. The fishing boat also popped up, with its bow sticking out of the water. The man swam over to the boat and grasped the bow. He was rescued by a pleasure boat after being in the water at least 15 minutes.

The body of one of the dead fishermen was picked up by a recreational boat a short time later. The second body was found three days later. None of the trio had donned life vests while they desperately tried to get their engine started, Hoesli said.

The survivor was the nephew of the fishing boat’s operator. The family’s lawyer, Jerry Summers of Chattanooga, didn’t respond to a request for comment. The other fisherman who died was a friend of the family.

The towboat carried a crew of seven — two pilots, three deck hands, one engineer and one cook. They all had the necessary licenses and passed drug and alcohol tests. They cooperated with investigators.

Hoesli said the Coast Guard is investigating whether the Bearcat captain assigned a proper lookout.

“The recreational vessels and the commercial vessels both have a right to be on the rivers,†Hoesli said. “But they both have to be mindful.â€

Dom Yanchunas

By Professional Mariner Staff