Crews begin to remove tug from floor of canal

Salvage work slowed by swift currents, belief body is inside

May 18, 2001|By Robert Little | Robert Little,SUN STAFF

DELAWARE CITY, Del. - Salvage crews began removing the sunken tug Bay Titan from the bottom of the Chesapeake & Delaware Canal yesterday, a process stymied at times by swift currents and complicated by the growing belief that a dead crew member is trapped inside.

Working only at slack tide - a periodic, two-hour window when tidal currents are mildest - divers attached slings to the bow and stern of the submerged tug. A crane barge lifted the tug several feet off the bottom just before 8 p.m. last night. Then the barge and tug, still submerged, were to be towed to an anchorage in the Delaware River.

"The visibility down there is almost zero," Lt. Cmdr. Dave Ford, the U.S. Coast Guard's lead investigator of the incident, said earlier in the day. "The divers can't see their hands in front of their faces, much less where to run a messenger line for the slings. It's not a good place to dive."

The Bay Titan was towing a sugar barge around a bend at the mouth of the C&D Canal on May 11 when it was overtaken and flipped by its tow line. Five crew members jumped from the 115-foot tugboat as it went down, but 45-year-old Steve Pollert was never found and his body is believed to be trapped inside.

The sunken tug was upside down yesterday, nearly dead-center in the mouth of the canal. Its pilothouse was buried slightly, and the forward keel jutted about 8 feet out of the water.

The canal, which connects the Delaware River and the northern Chesapeake Bay and saves several hours of transit time for Baltimore-bound vessels, has been closed for a week. It won't open until tomorrow at the earliest - once the Army Corps of Engineers determines that the tug's masts and other gear are no longer blocking the channel.

As salvage efforts go, the raising of the Bay Titan is relatively typical, Coast Guard officials said. But its impact on commercial shipping has created a heightened sense of urgency, they said. Also, its dual status as a missing person investigation makes it among the most complicated - and potentially most expensive - in memory.

The Coast Guard has banned vessels from the canal, the Federal Aviation Administration has banned aircraft from within a mile, and police detectives are watching for evidence.

Environmental crews laid nearly a mile of protective booms yesterday around waterfowl roosts and sensitive shorelines, in case the tug's 43,000 gallons of diesel fuel leak out. They will be ready with skimmers when the tug is righted.

The Delaware State Police sent divers into the tug last Friday and Saturday, but they couldn't get beyond the pilothouse because the current exceeded 3 knots.

A detective is on the crane barge Chesapeake 1000 monitoring the salvage work.

"Obviously, there's nothing to substantiate any suspicious activity at this point, but we try to be careful any time there might be a fatality involved," said Cpl. Walter Newton, a spokesman for the Delaware State Police.

Salvage workers expect to have the Bay Titan out of the canal and tied at the anchorage point by this morning. It will remain submerged and inverted. Sunken vessels are safer to tow that way, and the pressure of the added depth helps keep the fuel tanks from leaking.

At the first slack tide of daylight, divers will use plastic and duct tape to seal off about 15 fuel vents on the vessel. Then the boat will be slowly turned upright by a readjustment of the slings, and gradually lifted to the surface.

Only then will anyone board the vessel and determine whether Pollert's body is inside, according to investigators.

Pumps will remove enough water to make the tug buoyant and safe for towing to a pier or repair yard.

The cost of hiring the salvage firm Donjon Marine Co. could not be determined, but the sunken tug's owners also could be required to reimburse federal agencies involved in the effort. The Coast Guard estimated that its expenses - which might include the cost of a helicopter to search for fuel leaks - could approach $100,000.

"There's the waterway issue, the pollution potential, the personal safety aspect - it's a challenge," said Cmdr. Stephan Billian, chief of inspections and investigations for the Coast Guard office in Philadelphia.

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