Canal possibly closed for days

Search called off for missing crewman of tug blocking C&D

May 14, 2001|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN STAFF

The Chesapeake & Delaware Canal, a vital shortcut to the port of Baltimore, could remain closed to commercial traffic for most of this week as salvage crews try to remove a sunken tugboat that is blocking the channel.

Rescuers abandoned hope yesterday that a missing crew member of the Bay Titan might have survived the accident Friday. Steve Pollert, 45, was apparently trapped inside the tugboat, whose other four crew members escaped.

A Coast Guard spokesman said yesterday that salvage vessels could not arrive at the site of the sinking until late tomorrow. When they arrive, it could take several days to lift the tug, according to Lt. John Hartzell of the Coast Guard's Philadelphia marine safety office.

Judi Scioli, a spokeswoman for the Maryland Port Administration, said at least 12 vessels' plans had been disrupted by the accident as of yesterday afternoon. At least one, a Mediterranean Shipping Co. vessel, had been scheduled to use the canal yesterday but was rerouted to travel up the bay via Cape Henry, Va.

Scioli said that on a typical day, three major vessels use the 19-mile-long canal, which connects the upper Chesapeake Bay to the Delaware River, traveling to or from Baltimore.

The Bay Titan, owned by Bay Towing Co. of Norfolk, Va., is lying upside-down in about 50 feet of water near where the canal empties into the Delaware River.

The tug sunk Friday after it was apparently pulled underwater by a barge it was towing into the canal on the way to the Domino Sugar Corp. plant in Baltimore.

Hartzell said the Coast Guard is investigating the cause of the accident.

The canal must remain closed to commercial traffic because the sunken tug is "smack dab in the middle of the channel," Hartzell said. The Coast Guard was allowing some smaller recreational vessels to use the canal on a case-by-case basis.

Hartzell said the Coast Guard will have to bring in a large barge with a heavy-lifting derrick aboard to raise the 115-foot-long tug. He said he was not sure how long the salvage process would take once the barge was in place.

The closing of the canal poses a major inconvenience for some ships, which can save considerable time by using the canal to pass between the Chesapeake Bay and northern ports.

Ed Nielsen, president of the Association of Maryland Pilots, said the closing will mean more work for his members until the obstruction is removed.

He said it takes a pilot about five hours to guide a ship to the canal but eight to 14 hours to take it down the bay.

Nielsen said a typical modern cargo ship can save 10 to 14 hours on a trip to Baltimore from New York or Europe by using the canal. Because it takes $40,000 to $100,000 a day to operate such a vessel, he said, the cost to the shipping lines of using the bay route can be considerable.

Scioli said that for a slow-moving coastal barge, the closing of the canal can add a day to the trip.

"It affects us, and we are very dependent on the C&D," Scioli said, expressing hope that no vessels would bypass the port as a result of the canal closing.

Nielsen said that each shipping line will make its own decisions on whether its ships will take the longer trip or bypass Baltimore. He said it is unlikely that a shipper would divert traffic over the short term, but expressed concern that shippers could send cargo to other ports if the problem drags on.

Coast Guard Petty Officer Mark Visconti said rescuers called off the search for Pollert, of Suffolk, Va., about 11:30 p.m. Friday. The captain and three other crew members were rescued from the water, he said.

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