Tug accident probe continues

Investigators consider river currents, radar, possible human error

February 28, 2002|By Chris Guy | Chris Guy,SUN STAFF

ELK NECK STATE PARK -- Coast Guard experts are looking at everything from river currents to radar systems to potential human error as they investigate Monday's fog-blanketed collision between a 20,000-pound cargo ship and a flotilla of tugs and barges -- an accident that left four crewmen missing.

Reconstructing the crash scene will be an arduous task, involving dozens of interviews with surviving crewmen from the sunken tug Swift and with those who manned the A.V. Kastner freighter, Lt. Blake Welbourne, a Coast Guard investigations instructor, said yesterday.

"This is very unusual, with four fatalities," said Welbourne, who teaches at the Coast Guard training center in Yorktown, Va.

He is not directly involved in the Elk River investigation, but his students have included the lead investigator there.

"This will get a lot of attention because of the loss of life," he said. "The maritime industry has a good safety record, but that's not to say this isn't a dangerous business."

As the Coast Guard continued its investigation, salvage crews said they might raise the sunken 60-foot tug as early as tomorrow, if a 140-foot crane mounted on an A-frame barge arrives from Norfolk, Va., and other marine equipment from New Jersey.

"What they're saying now is that if all the equipment gets here and is in place today, everything should be ready to go," said Petty Officer 1st Class Patrick Montgomery.

The Coast Guard, the Maryland Department of the Environment and other agencies are working from this remote state park about three miles southwest of the site where the Kastner collided with the Swift. Five people traveling on the Swift survived, according to the Coast Guard.

Divers check wreckage

While divers from a New Jersey salvage company continued gingerly investigating the wrecked tug, Coast Guard officials huddled in a mobile office, working out a detailed plan for retrieving the stricken vessel. Officials gave up the underwater search for the four missing crewmen at sunset Monday.

Lt. Russ Bowman, who is heading the Coast Guard's investigative team, refused to speculate on a cause of the collision.

Throughout the day, a Maryland Department of the Environment emergency response team cruised the river, monitoring the accident site for any sign that the Swift might be losing any of nearly 4,000 gallons of fuel believed to be on board.

Lying on its side in the 35-foot shipping channel about a mile from the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal, the Swift and a barge submerged nearby have halted traffic on the important artery for the port of Baltimore. The canal links the upper Chesapeake with Delaware Bay.

Hauling gypsum

The Kastner was hauling a load of gypsum, a material used to make drywall, from Canada to Baltimore, when the crash occurred.

The ship sustained damage to its bow above the waterline and is docked in Baltimore.

Welbourne said investigators will closely scrutinize documents from the cargo ship to determine speed, rudder position and other factors that might have played a role in the crash.

"I'm not familiar with that location, but there are lots of elements -- tides, currents, wind, visibility, the mechanical condition of the vessels and their radar systems, the inspection records of the tugs and barges, you name it," he said.

Other key witnesses might turn out to be nearby residents, Welbourne said.

Some, startled awake by the sound of the crash, reported fog so thick they could not see the accident. Still, their accounts could help establish the timing of events.

Once the Coast Guard's investigation is complete -- and Welbourne says it's impossible to say whether it will take days or weeks -- the Maryland Port Board will conduct an inquiry.

That nine-member panel regulates and licenses 60 bay pilots who guide cargo ships in the Chesapeake Bay.

Bay pilots' view

Timothy M. Cober, a licensed bay pilot, was directing the Kastner at the time of the crash. The bay pilots association claims that the Swift, toward the rear of a group of barges, strayed into the freighter's path.

"The Coast Guard's investigation is primary here, they're the experts," said Mark Feinroth, assistant secretary for the state Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation, which oversees the appointed board.

"I don't know when we've ever had a situation this serious, certainly nothing like this," said Feinroth. "The last time there was disciplinary action against a pilot was in 1989. We expect the Coast Guard to move fairly quickly since this is such a big case. We'll work with the Coast Guard's report."

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