It was a hot day Friday, so the crew of the 115-foot tugboat Bay Titan kept its watertight engine room doors open as they turned into the east end of the Chesapeake & Delaware Canal near Reedy Point, Del.
Those open doors cost the tugboat precious seconds afloat, and might have cost the life of a crew member who is missing and presumed dead, investigators said.
Coast Guard investigators said they don't know whether the body of Steve Pollert, 45, of Suffolk, Va., is inside the cabin. It will probably take the rest of the week to hoist the water-filled tug from the bottom of the 35-foot channel without spilling its fuel, said Lt. Cmdr. David Ford, chief investigator in the marine safety office of the Coast Guard's Philadelphia district.
A four-legged salvage crane was en route from Albany, N.Y., and was expected to arrive today at the mouth of the canal, a shortcut to the port of Baltimore, which has been closed to barge traffic since the accident Friday.
Before salvage operations begin, contractors will use floating booms to protect nearby Pea Patch Island and Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge from any fuel that might spill from the Bay Titan, Ford said.
Though tugboats can pass through the canal, barges cannot because their wake could dislodge the Bay Titan, causing it to break up, Coast Guard officials said. The canal blockage adds a full day to the time it takes for shipping to travel from northern ports to Baltimore.
Ford said the Bay Titan sank in seconds, yanked underwater when the 280-foot barge suddenly overtook the tug. The barge was loaded with 835,000 gallons of liquid sugar for the Domino Sugar Corp. plant in Baltimore's Inner Harbor.
The crew members were eating lunch. The accident happened so fast that those closest to the cabin door escaped, but Pollert, on the far side of the table, didn't make it, according to Ford.
'It's going over'
"The master [of the tugboat] came down and said, 'It's going over. Get out of here,'" Ford said. "The engineer was only able to close one of the sliding doors before water came pouring in through the other one.
"If those doors were closed, it would have slowed down the time of the capsizing, but it wouldn't have prevented it," Ford added.
The Coast Guard's investigation is open, Ford said. Investigators will try to determine whether the tug and barge were mismatched, whether the tug captain used good judgment, and whether currents were a factor.
Accidents such as the one the Bay Titan suffered are common enough to have a slang name: "tripping the tow."
Ford said the Bay Titan was towing the big barge, rather than pushing it into the canal, because the barge's high sides blocked the tugboat's view.
Tugs generally have better control of barges when they're pushing them. The Coast Guard is investigating whether the tugboat was too small for the big sugar barge, Ford said.
Momentum in the turn
As the tugboat made the turn into the canal, the barge had so much momentum that it overtook the tugboat on its left side.
The Bay Titan's captain, whom Ford identified as Jack Carver, accelerated the engines and shortened the tow line.
The barge settled into place, but then, still traveling fast, it slid past the tug on the right.
The shortened tow line went taut and pulled the tugboat underwater stern-first, Ford said.
He said Carver had made the trip through the C&D; about 30 times.
"He's very upset," Ford said. "He's 26 years old, and he's got a lot on his shoulders right now."