A year after fatal tugboat sinking, Coast Guard report still incomplete

Findings will likely figure in civil lawsuits filed over Elk River collision

February 25, 2003|By Lane Harvey Brown | Lane Harvey Brown,SUN STAFF

A year after the tugboat Swift sank in the icy waters of the Elk River, the Coast Guard's report of the incident has not been released, and lawyers for the three companies involved are still collecting evidence for civil trials set to start early next year.

It was one year ago today that the tug and a 520-foot freighter collided in heavy fog 40 miles northeast of Baltimore, about two miles south of the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal.

The boat's captain and three crew members were killed after the 60-foot tug rolled and sank about 20 seconds after the crash.

Lt. j.g. Scott Baranowski of Coast Guard Activities Baltimore, an investigator in the case, said the report has been completed but must go through an internal review before being made public.

He said it would be at least several weeks, perhaps longer, before the Baltimore local, Portsmouth, Va., district and Washington national commands sign off on the findings.

He said the investigators' biggest challenge has been gathering the large number of interviews and evidence needed to complete the report.

"We need to be sure we cover all points," Baranowski said.

He estimated that 90 to 100 people had been interviewed, from crew members to witnesses to people listening to VHF radio who overheard transmissions from the vessels.

Baranowski said the report would focus on that evidence, as well as other data, to determine the cause - and recommend safety changes that could help avoid similar incidents.

Generally, in cases such as this one, the Coast Guard could also revoke or suspend the maritime licenses of individuals involved if fault were found, Baranowski said, though he added that no such decisions had been made in the Swift case.

About 6:45 a.m. Feb. 25 last year, the Swift, owned by Norfolk Dredging Co. of Chesapeake, Va., was headed north to a job in Delaware City, Del., part of a flotilla of equipment that included dredging, derrick and equipment barges, as well as about 500 feet of flexible pipe.

The caravan was pulled by another tugboat, the Buchanan 14, owned by Buchanan Marine L.P. of New Haven, Conn.

The Swift collided with the A.V. Kastner, owned by Gypsum Transportation Ltd., a Bermuda company, which was heading south to Baltimore with a load of nearly 18,000 tons of gypsum rock, which is used to make drywall.

Killed were Swift crew members Capt. William "Bo" Bryant, 44, of Virginia Beach, Va.; his nephew Justin Bryant, 18, of Supply, N.C.; Ronald L. Bonniville, 32, of Hayes, Va.; and Clarence McConnell, 47, of McClellanville, S.C.

The bodies of Bonniville and McConnell were recovered from the tug. The bodies of Bryant and his nephew bodies were found about a month later in the nearby Bohemia River, Baranowski said.

The events leading up to the collision are the subject of several lawsuits with claims totaling about $30 million, court records show.

The three so-called limitation of liability actions filed by each company - which act as an umbrella of sorts for related death, personal injury and property damage claims - have been consolidated in U.S. District Court in Baltimore and are scheduled for trial in February next year before Judge William M. Nickerson.

"It's a unique procedure" to the maritime industry, said W. Hamilton Whitman, a lawyer with Ober Kaler Grimes and Shriver, who is representing Gypsum Transportation Ltd. "Anyone with a claim against any vessel is required to participate in this action."

Whitman said the streamlining is beneficial because it "permits everyone to be heard in one forum."

Whitman and David W. Skeen, a lawyer with Wright Constable and Skeen, who is representing Norfolk Dredging, said their work had not been impeded by the lack of a Coast Guard report.

"Their findings aren't admissible," Skeen said. "They're going after safety issues and aren't concerned with finding fault."

J. Stephen Simms of Simms Showers, the firm representing Buchanan Maritime, declined to comment for this article.

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