Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Boundless Brotherhood and Heroism on the Western Rivers

Excerpt from U.S. Coast Guard “Proceedings of the Marine Safety & Security Council” magazine. By LTJG Jesse Garrant, chief of Boat Operations, and LTJG Jodi Min, assistant chief of Prevention, both of U.S. Coast Guard Marine Safety Unit Pittsburgh.

It was a cloudy, frigid January night on the Ohio River as the motor vessel (M/V) Elizabeth M began its lock upbound through the Montgomery Locks and Dam. Despite high water conditions and swift currents in the area, operations appeared normal as the vessel executed a “knockout” lockage, a procedure that involves the towboat disconnecting from the barges due to a lack of space lengthwise within the lock chamber, then reconnecting after following the barges through the lock.

As the lock gates opened and the motor vessel exited the lock chamber with its six loaded open-hopper coal barges, an incident occurred that caused the Elizabeth M, her seven-man crew, and two of her barges to be swept over the treacherous Montgomery Dam.

As the vessel sank nearly instantly, the crew had little time to prepare for the cold, turbulent water. The powerful river current forced one crewmember overboard, which left him drifting downriver, clinging to floating debris until rescuers could arrive. Additional crewmembers clung to the small, exposed portion of the pilothouse (see picture), battling the powerful current while also trying to fight hypothermia.

All of the barges subsequently sank, posing hazards to navigation above and below the dam. Tragically, as a result of this casualty, four of the seven crewmembers perished.

That morning, mariners along the Ohio River clearly demonstrated the true meaning of brotherhood and heroism. After hearing desperate requests for assistance from the crew, Good Samaritan responders performed actions that displayed bravery and demonstrated the underlying bond among mariners. Crewmembers from the M/Vs Lillian G, Rocket, and Sandy Drake responded, placing their lives in imminent danger.

To render assistance despite the known risk, crews maneuvered their vessels while combating high water conditions and avoiding floating debris and the threat of collision with partially submerged barges that were set adrift during the casualty. Crews from the Lillian G and Sandy Drake demonstrated commendable valor while retrieving men who had fallen overboard. As a result of their immediate response, one crewmember’s life was saved.

When faced with a decision that could cause the crew of the Rocket to suffer the same fate as the Elizabeth M, the crew unanimously decided to attempt rescue efforts for the two remaining survivors. As a result of the Rocket’s actions, both survivors, who battled frigid 34°F temperature water and 33°F air temperature, were safely rescued and successfully treated for severe hypothermia and minor injuries.

These heroic actions may not have been possible without the strong bond that has been witnessed daily on the Western Rivers. In a river community such as the Pittsburgh operating region, the rivermen form a small group that is extremely protective of one another. Strong bonds like these have been in existence since people started working the rivers.

Though not always as life-or-death as the acts of the Elizabeth M survivor or Rocket’s crewmembers, it is very common to see smaller acts of help and heroism on an everyday, smaller scale. When towboats and barges go aground or have breakaways, calls of distress from any riverboat captain will be responded to by others willing to help.

River conditions warrant decisions that are based on risk management, safety, and necessity, which are juggled by all vessel captains and crewmembers. The maritime community continues to work diligently to prevent casualties, but when they inevitably do occur, the river community will continue to extend its help to its brothers.

For more information:
Full article and “Focus on Safety” edition of USCG Proceedings is available at www.uscg.mil/proceedings. Click on “archives” and then “2008 Vol. 65, Number 2” (Summer 2008).

Subscribe online at http://www.uscg.mil/proceedings/subscribe.asp.

Online survey available at: http://www.uscg.mil/proceedings/survey.asp.

Direct requests for print copies of this edition to: HQS-DG-NMCProceedings@uscg.mil.