Two rescued after fleet boat capsizes in Tennessee River

Two crewmen were rescued from the Tennessee River after their pushboat sank bow-first near the Kentucky Lock and Dam.

The 1,000-hp Tom Bussler was upbound with no barges in tow when it sank at about 2200 on Jan. 7. The 55-footer went down inside the navigation channel at mile marker 15, about seven river miles north of the lock and dam.

Crew aboard Wepfer Marine’s fleet boat George Leavell responded to the sinking and pulled Tom Bussler’s captain and deck hand from the chilly river. Both were taken to a nearby hospital as a precaution, according to Cmdr. Luis Carmona of Coast Guard Marine Safety Unit Paducah (Ky.).

The incident remains under investigation, and Carmona could not comment on a possible cause.

“It happened really fast,” he said in a recent interview. “Based on the preliminary investigation, the vessel was going upriver and went down fast. They didn’t have time to make any maydays or request assistance.”

Tom Bussler, operated by McGinnis Inc. of South Point, Ohio, departed nearby Paducah shortly before the incident. Carmona believed its destination was a Tennessee River fleeting area near where the vessel ultimately sank.

The Tennessee River was running fast at the time. Carmona estimated Tom Bussler was running against a 5-knot current. Specific conditions for that section of the river could not be determined, but the Ohio River was running about two feet above flood stage at the Paducah gauge.

“The vessel was navigating with the bow toward the current upriver,” Carmona said. “It wasn’t beam-side — it was literally just navigating upriver when it went bow-down.”

Specifics about the crewmen’s escape from the vessel were not available from the Coast Guard. The two mariners were wearing life jackets when they were pulled from the water after about 20 minutes by the crew from George Leavell. Carmona said unusually warm weather, about 60 degrees at the time of the sinking, likely helped prevent hypothermia.

Wepfer Marine of Memphis, Tenn., did not respond to an inquiry about George Leavell’s role in the rescue, and McGinnis President Rick Griffith declined to comment.

The Coast Guard closed the Tennessee River for about 24 hours after the incident while authorities searched for the sunken vessel. Once its location was marked at the surface, the Coast Guard established a safety zone limiting traffic to one-way transits from Jan. 8 to Jan. 18.

The restriction ended when the vessel was raised on Jan. 18. Salvage details were not available, but the Coast Guard said high water delayed the sunken boat’s removal.

Tom Bussler sank with about 4,100 gallons of diesel on board, but the Coast Guard said there were no reports of sheening on the river.

By Professional Mariner Staff