Excerpt from U.S. Coast Guard Proceedings of the Marine Safety & Security Council magazine by Ms. Carolyn Steele, Technical Writer
A cry in the dark
In the foggy pre-dawn darkness of July 12, 2001, the captain of the towboat M/V Elaine G heard a cry from the dark water of the Ohio River. It was 5:25 a.m., and the vessel was traveling at a speed of six knots, pushing 14 empty hopper barges along that stretch of river in Kentucky.
The captain sounded the general alarm, brought the engines to all stop, and maintained position in the river while the crew searched for the source.
At 5:50 a.m., having failed to find anyone in the water, the captain backed the 998-foot tow onto the Kentucky bank and contacted Coast Guard Group Ohio Valley by VHF radio, and reported that the tow was stopping to investigate.
Crewmembers discovered two seat cushions floating in the water between the starboard and center strings and the port and center strings of the barges. After the fog lifted, more items were found floating in the water, including two paddles, a plastic bucket, and a ball cap.
The Indiana Department of Natural Resources arrived first on the scene at 8:00 a.m., followed by the Coast Guard Marine Safety Office (MSO) Louisville investigators. The MSO investigators determined that only the tow and a nearby recreational vessel could have been involved in the incident.
On July 18, 2001, a 17-foot recreational vessel was recovered approximately three miles away. It was found floating awash in a vertical position with the stern down.
The body of a man was found under the starboard side steering console, and a large dog was found under the port side console. Over the next three days, the bodies of five other men were recovered from the Ohio River in that vicinity.
Damage to the Vessels
The initial investigation revealed damage that told a decisive story. While the towboat itself sustained no damage, when they examined its string of barges, investigators observed scrape marks on the bow rake of the center lead barge. These marks, which began at 42.5 inches above the waterline and extended down approximately 20 inches, were consistent with the damage found on the recreational vessel.
The recreational vessel had scrapes in an 80-degree pattern on the port gunwale beginning approximately 19 inches from the stern and continuing forward three feet and four inches further. This was believed to be the initial contact point with the rake of the center lead barge.
A similar pattern of 85-degree scrapes appeared on the port transom top, indicating a slight twisting motion around the time of the initial contact. The windshield was shattered and bent to starboard, and part of the forward handrail was missing, compressed, and bent at a 75-degree angle. The starboard forward handrail, also partially missing, was bent forward and down, puncturing the hull coaming at the bow.
In part II we will outline the subsequent Coast Guard investigation.
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