ELK NECK STATE PARK -- If all goes according to plan today, marine salvage crews plan to raise a sunken tugboat that has blocked shipping traffic at the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal since Monday's fog-shrouded collision with a 525-foot cargo vessel on the Elk River -- an accident that left four crewmen missing and presumed dead.
Coast Guard officials said last night that divers were attempting to attach steel cables and straps beneath the tug, the Swift, the last step in a delicate weeklong recovery effort before lifting the 60-foot vessel.
"If we can get everything in place, we'll be ready to try to lift it," said Petty Officer 3rd Class William Barry, a Coast Guard spokesman. "Once the divers are set, we can call for the crane that will handle the job."
Barry said that the operation must take place during a slack tide, one of four that occur daily, the first around noon today, because of the unusually strong currents in the area near the canal's western entrance.
The 140-foot-high crane, anchored and stabilized with steel posts that will be sunk into the river bottom before trying to retrieve the sunken tug, was docked yesterday in Baltimore, a five-hour sail from the accident site in the half-mile-wide river. The recovery is being handled by Elsworth Salvage of Camden, N.J.
The Swift is lying on its starboard side at the bottom of the 35-foot-deep channel about a mile from the canal, which provides a vital shipping link between the upper Chesapeake and Delaware Bay.
Officials plan to lift the tug a few feet off the river bottom to allow divers to inspect for oil or fuel leaks, then move it out of the shipping channel. Later, the crane will raise a nearby barge that sank just outside the channel Monday, said Petty Officer 3rd Class Scott Whitney, a Coast Guard spokesman.
"This is likely to be a drawn-out process because they have to get the water out without any environmental problems," Whitney said. "First, they're going to move it out of the channel."
Owned by a Norfolk, Va., dredging company, the Swift was part of a flotilla of barges, another tugboat and two smaller workboats that left Chesapeake, Va., a week ago, headed north for a dredging job at a Delaware oil refinery when it collided with the A.V. Kastner.
Minutes before the accident, the larger ship had passed through the 14-mile-long canal and was headed for Baltimore to unload its cargo of gypsum, the key ingredient in drywall. The Kastner, which has been docked in Baltimore since Monday night, suffered minor damage.
Throughout the week, Coast Guard and Maryland Department of the Environment officials have monitored the recovery to ensure that diesel fuel does not leak from the tug.
Missing are the tug's captain, William Bryant, of Virginia Beach, Va., his nephew, Justin Bryant, of Supply, Va., Ronald Bonniville, of Hayes, Va., and Clarence McConnell, of McClellanville, S.C.