`All they knew' was tug sinking

Collision: Witnesses and survivors shed some light on events the morning of the accident.

March 01, 2002|By Andrew A. Green and Lane Harvey Brown | Andrew A. Green and Lane Harvey Brown,SUN STAFF

As the rescue boat from Aberdeen Proving Ground headed north on the Elk River early Monday morning, the warm, clear air turned to whitewash fog.

Capts. T. Wayne Fletcher and Wade Hague could see the outline of the 520-foot freighter that had called in the mayday after colliding with a convoy of tugs and barges on the river, just south of the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal. As they approached the A.V. Kastner, its crew radioed for them to look for two life rings in the water.

One of the tugboats, the Swift, had capsized in the collision, and the freighter's crew saw two of the watermen trying to stay afloat as the tug went down. Witnesses think Justin Bryant, an 18-year-old deck hand, went over the side first. He had a life ring but disappeared beneath the surface. The freighter's crew saw the tug captain, William T. "Bo" Bryant, Justin's uncle, jump in to try to save him. The crew threw him a life ring.

Fletcher and Hague could hardly see in the fog. They maneuvered their boat carefully, afraid that they would run over victims or debris in the fast-moving, 42-degree water.

By the time the rescuers spotted the life rings, they were empty.

The collision that killed four of the Swift's crew is being investigated by the Coast Guard. Not all of the details of what happened on the tug are known, but interviews with survivors, rescuers and witnesses shed some light on the events of that morning.

The crew

William Bryant, 44, had been a tugboat captain for six or seven years and had been on the water for 25. The water was the only thing he knew, relatives say. It was his love, and it was his life.

Growing up in Supply, N.C., Justin Bryant admired his uncle. Justin's mother, Marsha Bryant Johnson, says Justin knew his uncle made a good living - he had just bought a ranch home in Virginia Beach, Va. When he was about to graduate from high school, Justin decided he wanted to go to work for him. Last July, he did.

"I told my brother, `He's yours now. Treat him like your own,'" Johnson says.

Seven months later, uncle and nephew were together in Norfolk, Va., getting William Bryant's boat, the Swift, ready for a trip up the Chesapeake Bay to a dredging job outside Delaware City, Del.

Justin Bryant wasn't scheduled to work this week, but he picked up an extra shift, hoping to make some money to replace his Mitsubishi Galant. Still, the boat was short-staffed, so the company, Norfolk Dredging Co., called in men it had working other jobs.

One of them, Ronald L. Bonniville, 32, was a nautical jack-of-all-trades from Hayes, Va. He and his cousin, Mark Bonniville, had spent years working the bay and the rivers, crabbing, catching eels and fishing, but a few months before, he'd hung up his crab pots and taken a job with Norfolk Dredging, hoping to make some money before his spring wedding.

On Saturday morning, he called his fiancee, Liz Kellum, to say the weather was looking bad and the crew wouldn't be going out.

"Just come pick me up," he told her.

By the time she made the 1 1/2 -hour trip, the skies had cleared. The crew was gone.

"I didn't get to say goodbye or nothing," Kellum says.

Jeffrey Slaton, of Norfolk, wasn't supposed to be on the boat either. He had been working on the Essex, another of Norfolk Dredging's tugs, when the company asked him to fill in on the Swift. He had just enough time to go home, grab some clothes, eat half a pizza and say goodbye to his wife, Jessica.

The Essex took Slaton out to meet the Swift at Craney Island, a fuel depot across the bay from the port of Norfolk.

He had seen the other crew members around the docks but didn't really know them. Aside from the Bryants and Bonniville, they were Troy Link, 38, from Hampton, Va.; Clarence McConnell, 47, from McClellanville, S.C.; Roy Young, 48, from Middleburg, Fla.; Dennis Wallace, 49, from Townsend, Ga.; and Ben Dickey, whose age and hometown have not been released.

Quickly, they got to work and headed north in a 1,000-foot-long caravan of tugs and barges. Another tug, the Buchanan 14, led the way, followed by a barge, a dredge, the Swift, a derrick and dredge pipes.

Work on a tug isn't glamorous. Hands work in shifts, six hours on, six hours off, working with the lines, pumping out water, patching leaks, cleaning, painting.

The Swift made 5 or 6 knots as it headed up the Chesapeake, and everything went smoothly until Sunday night. The weather got rough then, and the midnight to 6 a.m. shift spent the night working the pumps.

Sometime in the night, William Bryant told the crew they would be passing a southbound freighter the next morning. They'd be going past it on the port side, he said.

About three freighters a day take the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal as a shortcut to Baltimore, but the men on the early morning shift didn't worry about this one - the next shift would be on when it passed.

At 6 a.m., when the shift changed, Slaton and Justin Bryant headed to the galley for breakfast.

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