Two killed in sinking of mail boat J.W. Westcott II in Detroit River

A famous workboat that has delivered mail, pilots, supplies and even pizza and cigarettes to ships for more than half a century sank in the Detroit River in an accident that killed two crewmembers.

J.W. Westcott II was raised six days after the accident. One body was found inside. The second crewmember was missing and presumed dead.

The 45-foot J.W. Westcott II capsized shortly after 0700 on Oct. 23 as it was delivering a pilot to Sidsel Knutsen, a 533-foot Norwegian oil tanker. Westcott’s captain, Catherine Nasiatka, 48, and deckhand David Lewis, 50, were killed in the accident. Two Canadian pilots who were aboard Westcott swam to safety in the fast-moving river that separates Detroit from Windsor, Ontario.

Coast Guard Lt. Cmdr. Brian Hall said the incident is under investigation. He said there was nothing unusual about the weather conditions, with 10- to 15-knot winds and a chop of 1 to 2 feet. The boat, he said, was about 30 or 40 feet farther astern than is usual when making deliveries to ships.

“We’re trying to determine what happened and what factors played into the incident,” he said. “We’ll be looking into whether there were any human errors made.”

On the morning of Oct. 23, Westcott set out from its berth to deliver a Canadian pilot to Knutsen, a tanker owned by Knutsen OAS Shipping of Haugesund, Norway. It was then scheduled to deliver another pilot to a freighter in the nearby Ojibway Anchorage. It was still dark when Westcott arrived alongside Knutsen, its starboard side to the tanker’s port.

The tanker was partially filled with 12,000 tons of gasoline and was scheduled to steam upriver to Lake St. Clair and then up the St. Clair River to the Canadian port of Sarnia on Lake Huron. Ships must travel up the Detroit River to make their way from Lake Erie to Lake Huron.

As usual, a ladder for the pilot to climb up was hanging over the side of Knutsen when Westcott pulled up alongside an estimated 100 feet forward of the stern. Hall said the boat typically pulls up about one-quarter of the way from the stern of visiting ships – or about 130 to 140 feet forward in this case.

Also as usual, Westcott began taking on some water as it pulled toward the side of the tanker, the suction of the two boats together churning the water rapidly between their hulls. The water typically comes on deck and escapes through the frame ports of the bulwarks.

This time, however, the boat took on more water than usual and it began flowing into the pilothouse, Hall said. The vessel started listing to the port side.

“The way the witnesses described it, within seconds the pilothouse had almost completely filled with water,” Hall said. “One pilot opened the doorway on the port side of the Westcott to escape. The other made it out that same door as well.”

The pilots told investigators they swam to safety in the 55° waters and watched the boat go down in about 20 seconds.

“The first pilot popped out of the water, the second popped out of the water, and the vessel was upside down. The engine was still running, and the propeller was turning at a furious rate,” Hall said.

The pilots said they watched the stern rise out of the water as Westcott’s bow dug into the river bottom. It then sank and apparently turned, because it was later found facing downriver – opposite the direction it was headed at the time of the accident.

The pilots were rescued by the tug Stormont, which raced to the scene from Windsor after it heard a distress call from Knutsen. The pilots were treated and released.

Faust Marine raised Westcott from the bottom of the river six days later. Nasiatka was found inside, but divers found no trace of Lewis. He is presumed dead.

J.W. Westcott II is owned and operated by the J.W. Westcott Co. of Detroit. Bill Redding, a dispatcher with the company, said the electrical system will be replaced, but the engine may be salvageable. He said the boat should be up and running by spring.

Redding called the mishap a freak accident and said it is the first time the company has had a fatality.

“Everybody’s in shock,” he said. “We’ve been in business since 1874, and it’s the first time anything like this has happened.”

J.W. Westcott II, a converted tug with a 220-hp engine, was a common sight on the Detroit River, where since 1949, it has delivered mail, pilots, supplies and other items to visiting tankers and freighters. The vessel is best known for its “mail in a pail” service: It delivers letters to crewmen who lower a bucket from large ships to retrieve them.

According to the U.S. Postal Service, Westcott is the only boat in the country with its own ZIP Code: 48222. In the 1970s, it was delivering up to 1 million pieces of mail each year. That number has fallen, and it was delivering only half that much in the 1990s.

The family of David Lewis has filed a $10 million federal lawsuit against J.W. Westcott Co., accusing it of negligence in the accident. The suit alleges that Lewis and Nasiatka were not wearing life jackets and that Westcott Co. didn’t enforce safety regulations.

Redding said the company did not have any comment on the lawsuit. “Both Dave and Cathy were extremely valuable employees to our company and always had a pleasant demeanor on and off the job,” he said. “They will be missed very very much.”

In the meantime, the company is using a backup boat, Joseph J. Hogan, to continue its delivery service to ships.

Hall said most accidents – and fatalities – in the Detroit River involve recreational boaters who have trouble handling its fast and unpredictable currents. He couldn’t recall a fatal accident involving a commercial vessel.

“The J.W. Westcott is an icon for Detroit,” he said. “This is unbelievable.”

By Professional Mariner Staff