Survivor remembers ordeal of tug sinking

Trapped: `I thought I was dead' after the collision with a freighter, Jeffrey Slaton says.

February 28, 2002|By Andrew A. Green | Andrew A. Green,SUN STAFF

Jeffrey Slaton was the last man on the Swift and the last man off.

He wasn't supposed to be on the tugboat that sank Monday morning in the Elk River near the entrance to the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal. But the boat needed another deckhand, and he agreed to turn around from a shift on the Essex and start another one on the Swift, with just enough time at home to change clothes.

If not for the help of God, Slaton says, he never would have seen home again.

On Sunday night, the captain, William "Bo" Bryant, told the crew that a freighter would be passing on the port side the next morning.

It was nothing to worry about, Slaton thought, because his shift would be over by then. He and the other men working from midnight to 6 a.m. told the men on the 6 a.m.-to-noon shift about the freighter and headed below.

Some of them went straight to their bunks, but Slaton and Justin Bryant, the captain's nephew, who was working as a deckhand, went to the galley for breakfast.

The Swift had been through rough waters the night before, and Slaton, 32, was enjoying the calm and a bowl of Lucky Charms when the nightmare began.

The Coast Guard is investigating what happened, but a 520-foot freighter, the A.V. Kastner, and the convoy of barges and tugs the 60-foot Swift was in, collided about 6:45 a.m. The Swift was ripped apart, Slaton says.

"You ever gone 100 miles an hour and then stopped and went 50 miles an hour the other way?" Slaton says. "I came close."

Slaton was flipped over the table and slammed into the wall. Justin Bryant got out the door just before it crashed shut, trapping Slaton inside.

The boat was tipping, and everything in the galley -- the refrigerator, microwave, television, pots, pans, knives -- fell on him, knocking him unconscious on the floor.

"I woke up under water, trying to get oxygen," he says. "I thought I was dead then."

Slaton grabbed hold of everything he could, climbed up and was almost to the other door when the boat capsized, the air rushed out of the galley and the door slammed shut. He got knocked around and couldn't tell where he was. Diesel fuel stung his eyes and nose and throat.

"Put yourself in a room with no light and everything falling in every direction, and you have no idea which way you're going and which way you're at, except feeling your fingertips getting cut and sliced," Slaton says.

Then he hit something with his head -- one of the orange juice bottles from the refrigerator, a quarter full of juice and three quarters full of air. He sucked the air out and thought about his three kids and his wife.

"I asked myself questions. I said, `God, am I dying, or is this when you're testing me to make sure I'm strong in faith?'" Slaton says. "I said, `I'm strong, God, just give me one more breath and let me go home to my wife and kids.' I took the last bit of air I could and found the door with my feet and kicked my way out."

Seeing sky through water

Slaton went out the door feet first and could see the sky through the water. He swam to the surface, took two deep breaths of air and climbed as hard as he could onto the bottom of the tug.

"It was just one last effort to get out, but I did it. I barely did it," he says.

That's where rescuers picked him up and took him to another boat nearby. Slaton says he was in and out of consciousness from the shock and cold, and next thing he knew, they were putting him on a helicopter and taking him to Maryland Shock Trauma Center.

"One of the nurses from the trauma center brought me some ice cream," Slaton says. "You wouldn't believe what kind -- it was rocky road."

He spent the day there, and friends picked him up and took him home to Norfolk, Va., on Monday night.

In the end, he suffered lots of bumps and bruises, muscle spasms and enough knots on his head to give his wife, Jessica, a shock when she finally saw him. He's in a neck brace and taking steroids, muscle relaxants and painkillers.

Slaton has been in bed mostly since he got home, with his kids, Anna, Jonathan and Jeremy. His dogs, Cocoa and Beauty, knew he was hurt as soon as he got home, he says, and his cat, Sandy, hasn't left his side.

`I'm just glad I'm alive'

The tug company, Norfolk Dredging Co. of Chesapeake, Va., sent him to a specialist, who checked him over, and they sent him to a therapist.

"I'm just glad I'm alive, I thank God for it," Slaton says. "I can't keep the images out of my head. It's something I'm going to have to deal with for a long time, telling the guys I'd see them later, and I'm not."

William and Justin Bryant and deckhands Clarence McConnell and Ronald Bonniville remain missing. The Coast Guard gave up searching for them late Monday afternoon.

"I just want to make sure they take care of those guys' families," Slaton says, "the ones that were left behind."

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