Worker killed when construction barge capsizes in N.J. river

A demolition worker was killed when a custom-engineered segmented barge capsized in New Jersey’s Manasquan River after its load became imbalanced, the Coast Guard said.

A 25-foot tugboat also overturned in the April 18 accident, which occurred at 1546 while a crew was demolishing the old Route 70 bridge near Point Pleasant, N.J.

To catch discarded rubble underneath the bridge, George Harms Construction Co. had fashioned its own hopper barge out of three Flexifloat segments, steel plates and I-beams, said Mike Kaszuba, the chief investigator at the U.S. Coast Guard’s Philadelphia office.

James P. Lovely, 37, of Aberdeen, N.J., was killed when the 20-by-50-foot barge overturned on top of him. The operator of the tug was able to escape unharmed.

The demolition crew had recognized that the debris piling up on the barge was causing a load imbalance, but they thought they had solved the problem, Kaszuba said.

“They got into a situation where the barge was unstable, and it started to list,” Kaszuba said. “They used a piece of construction gear with a bucket to press down on one side of the barge, and then they attached a cable to the steel plate on the opposite side and attached the other end to another piece of the machinery on the bridge to stabilize it temporarily,” he said. “They put more rubble into the barge until the cable went slack. Once they thought the Flexifloat barge was in a stable situation, they attempted to move it.”

Lovely went aboard the barge to disconnect the cable. With the tugboat attached, the barge tipped first to starboard and then reversed direction and capsized to port. Kaszuba said Lovely jumped off and began to try to swim away, but the makeshift hopper came down over him, trapping him underwater.

Lovely was wearing a life jacket at the time of the accident. New Jersey State Police Sgt. Jeanne Hengemuhle said it took rescuers five hours to recover Lovely’s body from the water. The cause of death was drowning, according to an autopsy by the Ocean County Medical Examiner.

The accident happened in 10 to 12 feet of water. Kaszuba said no adverse weather or tide conditions were reported.

A regular hopper barge would have been too large for the job because of the tight space and the need for a shallow draft, Kaszuba said. Each Flexifloat is 10 feet wide and 20 feet long. Two were attached side-by-side, and the third was laid perpendicular to the other two. Kaszuba said the configuration didn’t become loose. He wouldn’t say whether the demolition crew had placed too much weight on the barge.

In May the Coast Guard was still investigating the exact cause of the accident. The federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration is also probing the fatality. The agency publishes lengthy standards on demolition and falling rubble. Kate Dugan, an OSHA spokeswoman, said the regulations pertain mainly to buildings but “can also be applied to this situation.”

Kaszuba said engineers at the Coast Guard Marine Safety Center will attempt to recreate the Flexifloat construction — with a similar welded steel hopper. They will try to determine stability calculations, safe load weight and under what circumstances such a barge would capsize.

Anyone dropping demolition rubble onto a barge must be aware of the vessel’s ability to carry the weight and what sort of imbalance would cause it to capsize, the Coast Guard said.

“With any type of vessel — from a kayak to your biggest vessels — stability is a priority and keeping a balanced load,” Kaszuba said.

George Harms Construction, based in Howell, N.J., was the owner and operator of the tugboat. Ed Nyland, director of business development for George Harms Construction, said the company would have no comment on the incident. He also declined to specify the safety precautions the company takes when using Flexifloats.

The Coast Guard said the 225-hp, twin-engine tug had some damage to its bridge and sustained water damage.

By Professional Mariner Staff