Tug survived Katrina's fury

WAY BACK WHEN

Back Story

October 22, 2005|By FREDERICK N. RASMUSSEN | FREDERICK N. RASMUSSEN,SUN REPORTER

"O God! Have mercy in this dreadful hour on the poor mariner!"

Edward Rowe Snow, author of The Vengeful Sea

For Roland Park resident Capt. Allen Baker, the late August trip this summer aboard the tug Joan Moran from Jacksonville, Fla., to New Orleans, promised to be nothing more than another routine voyage for a veteran mariner who has spent the past 25 years steaming across the world's oceans and seas aboard bulk cargo ships, tankers and containerships.

Baker had flown to Jacksonville from Baltimore on Aug. 21, where he joined the seven-member crew of the Joan Moran as an able seaman.

The 125-foot-long oceangoing tug is powered by twin diesel engines capable of producing 4,700 horsepower.

"We were towing a 420- foot-long barge to New Orleans for a load of coal and then back to a power plant near Jacksonville. Just a normal trip," Baker recalled the other day.

"When we left Jacksonville on Aug. 22, and got below Miami and the Dry Tortugas, Katrina was still a tropical depression in the Bahamas, but once it became a hurricane and crossed Florida, oh boy," he said.

While the Joan Moran was steaming up the Gulf of Mexico aiming for the entrance to the Mississippi River, Katrina was turning toward the northwest.

"We were keeping an eye on Katrina, but at that point, it was still pretty far away, until Saturday when I heard on the radio the weatherman saying, `This thing is going to explode,'" he said.

The tug anchored at Myrtle Grove, La., 40 miles below New Orleans, waiting to go into the coal pier when the crew was told not to enter because the facility was being evacuated.

The Moran then steamed up the Mississippi and after arriving late Saturday afternoon in New Orleans, tied up on the west bank near the Industrial Canal, where it would ride out the gathering storm. Its company was several other tugs and barges that had also sought refuge in the anchorage.

The crew spent Sunday securing the Moran. A heavy wooden shield was placed over the wheelhouse windows.

"We were ready. We had plenty of food, fuel and 5,000 gallons of water," said Baker.

He recalled getting a slightly ominous feeling as the wind began picking up Saturday evening and watching an endless parade of vessels, many with their windows taped, heading upriver to escape the storm's fury.

"On Sunday night, I called my mother in Baltimore on the cell phone and told her I was OK and not to worry," Baker said.

"By Monday morning at 6 a.m., it really started blowing hard, and it was raining so hard that we couldn't see across the river. There were all kinds of large logs and debris in the river," he recalled.

With the tug's two powerful engines running full-ahead, they helped keep the Moran and her barge firmly against the dock.

"The wind overpowered the noise of the engines and was so strong that it blew some of the white paint off the railings," he said. "We were all in the wheelhouse trying to be nonplused, but it wasn't working."

The storm surge was gradual as the rain and wind continued to rage on through the afternoon.

One of their fears, Baker said, was another vessel snapping its hawsers and then coming down on them.

And then they heard the master of the Chios Beauty, a 25,000-ton Greek freighter, pleading for help on the radio as the ship's lines snapped one by one, freeing it from its berth.

"We were about a mile down the river from this unfortunate ship on the same side. We listened to this ship's poor Greek master pleading with anyone on the VHF radio for assistance, but there was no one to help him. Even the Coast Guard had left New Orleans," he said.

By early afternoon, with winds still gusting up to 50 mph., Baker went on deck and saw a sight that shook him.

The Chios Beauty had been blown across the river and had come to rest atop the levee with its bow down at a 35-degree angle.

"What also stunned me was the quiet. It was incredible. New Orleans was dark, and there was no river traffic. We also heard the first helicopters going into St. Bernard Parish while hundreds of people gathered on the levees because they were the highest point of land," Baker said.

Baker said the river rose about 25 feet, which was well over the top of the dock where they were anchored.

"Because of the drought, the river was low, and that's what saved New Orleans. If it had been high, there would be nothing left of New Orleans," he said.

Unsure if the river was open and without any reliable communication available, the Joan Moran departed New Orleans on Sept. 1 and picked its way down the swollen Mississippi.

"There were sunken boats and barges in the river while other vessels [were] left high and dry on the levees. At one point, it looked as though a giant had taken a great scythe, and as far as you could see, every tree had been cut to a uniform height. It was the wind that did that," Baker said.

Steaming out into the Gulf of Mexico, they encountered some 60 vessels that had ridden out the storm and were now waiting to see if proceeding on to New Orleans was possible.

While they were heading for Charleston, S.C., Ophelia, which would later become the 15th named storm of the Atlantic hurricane season, was brewing.

"We were plowing through 25-foot seas with the bow going up and down, and no one was feeling well. I had to hold onto my mattress so I wouldn't fall out of my bunk, we were rocking and pitching so hard. We took a pounding for two days before we reached Charleston on Sept. 6," he said.

"I've been though hurricanes at sea before and I know what even a minimal hurricane is capable of. But Katrina was different," he said.

Anxious to be on dry land, when he arrived at the airport in Atlanta for his flight to Baltimore, he chose to walk from gate A to E, rather than take a shuttle.

"I was just thankful to be going home, and I don't go looking for adventure or seeking trouble," Baker said.

fred.rasmussen@baltsun.com

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