C&D Canal closed after tug capsizes

Shipping artery links upper bay and Delaware River

Crew member feared dead

Traffic in waterway halted until salvage work can be done

May 13, 2001|By Lynn Anderson | Lynn Anderson,SUN STAFF

An important Baltimore shipping artery has been blocked after an accident at the eastern mouth of the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal.

The Bay Titan, a 115-foot-long coastal tugboat, capsized Friday while turning into the canal from the Delaware River. The vessel is expected to block the 450-foot-wide channel until it can be removed with a crane. A member of its crew is missing and feared dead.

The 19-mile sea-level canal, which links the upper Chesapeake Bay with the Delaware River, cuts 300 miles from a trip between Philadelphia and Baltimore. More than 1,100 barges and 850 ships used it in 1998, the last year for which statistics are available.

The accident, the first serious one in the canal in about six years, appears to have taken the life of Steve Pollert, 45, a Bay Titan crew member from Suffolk, Va., who was still missing late yesterday.

U.S. Coast Guard officials believe Pollert's body is trapped inside the tug, which rests upside down on the 45-foot-deep canal bed. Only the bow is visible above the waves, witnesses said.

Choppy waters on the Delaware yesterday made it impossible for scuba divers to continue a search for Pollert in and around the sunken tug.

"We'll have to wait for the salvage phase to get him," said Danny Pennell, a boatswain's mate 2nd class with the Coast Guard.

Maryland Port Administration officials could not be reached yesterday for comment on the impact of the accident, but experts said that loss of the shipping route is certain to scramble Baltimore's shipping traffic if it continues.

"It is fairly critical in terms of maintaining the transportation standard," said Mike Sherbert, a dispatcher with Bay Towing Corp. of Norfolk, Va., which operates the tug.

Some ships intending to use the canal are being held in port - here, in Philadelphia and elsewhere, pending alternative plans.

"Ship traffic will either be held up or ... they will have to opt to go around the Delmarva Peninsula, which adds about a day and a half to 2 1/2 days to a trip," Sherbert said.

Maryland Port Administration officials have been engaged in an extended political argument about the importance of the canal in recent years, strongly backing a proposed U.S. Corps of Engineers dredging project that would deepen it to 50 feet to accommodate modern container vessels.

But critics of the plan, which has been delayed for at least three years, have noted a steady decline in traffic through the shortcut. On a busy day, the canal might carry as many as 35 vessels, but on a slow day, that number could drop to a half-dozen, said a Corps of Engineers official.

The Bay Titan sank swiftly about 11:30 a.m. Friday after its stern was pulled under the water by a 370-foot-long barge filled with liquid sugar bound for Baltimore from a Domino Sugar Corp. refining plant in Brooklyn, N.Y.

"The tug was turning, and the barge ran past it," said Ray Robbins, president of operations for Bay Towing. "It pulled the tug over. It isn't common, but it happens now and again. Most of the time, there is time to correct it, but this time it didn't happen."

Five other crew members, including the captain, who Robbins said has "years of experience," escaped from the sinking tug with minor injuries. They jumped overboard and were rescued by passing boaters, including fishermen and a game warden, said Al Dias, a marine traffic controller with the Corps of Engineers at Chesapeake City. The Corps of Engineers operates the canal.

"They had some bruises, some soreness, but mostly they were just scared and not wanting to repeat what happened," said Sherbert, who spoke with some crew members yesterday. He said they were "visibly shaken" and couldn't talk about what happened when the boat went down.

The Coast Guard is investigating the accident.

The barge, christened the "Domino Sugar," was not damaged, Robbins said, and was removed to another port. Sherbert said crew members left for their homes in Virginia, Texas and Louisiana yesterday.

Accidents at the mouth of the canal are rare, Pennell said. Of the Bay Titan accident, Pennell said, "It's a freak thing. The weather was nice and the river was calm."

Like all commercial vessels that pass through the canal, the captain of the Bay Titan radioed Dias two hours before he arrived at the mouth of the waterway to seek permission to enter it.

"The captain called me again 20 minutes before he entered, and then I never heard from him again," said Dias, who monitors shipping traffic on the entire canal using radio and TV cameras. Dias said he radioed the ship twice as it entered the canal 12 miles away but received no answer.

"I seen him coming and I waited, and he never called, and then I heard the Coast Guard say something about a sinking," said Dias, who estimates that the tug sank in a matter of minutes - perhaps as few as 15 minutes.

"I called the captain again and there was no answer, and then I called again," said Dias. "Then I looked on my camera and there was no tugboat there."

Dias said that the eastern entrance to the canal is close to a tanker port at Delaware City and that the waters of the Delaware River can be congested at times. Not all ship captains radio "security calls" to warn others in the area that they are coming through, he said.

"There's more traffic there," Dias said. "You have to be careful there. It can be a critical area."

Another hazard is water current, Pennell said. "The current is very strong there, about 4 to 6 knots," he said.

Sherbert said that the recent full moon and spring tides might have contributed to slightly stronger than normal currents.

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