Steve Pollert came within a hand's grasp of escaping a watery grave. Six days after the tugboat Bay Titan capsized in the Chesapeake & Delaware Canal, the body of the 45-year-old deckhand is likely trapped in the sunken vessel's galley, 35 feet under water.
And it could be at least one more day before Coast Guard crews have a chance to search for his body.
While marine salvage crews prepared a risky effort to right the tugboat, Pollert's relatives are grappling with the Suffolk, Va., man's death. "It haunts me to think that anyone could pass away in that manner, to be so alone at the end with no one there to help him," his daughter, Melinda Pollert of Portsmouth, Va., said yesterday.
Pollert's fate was nearly averted, a Coast Guard spokesman said yesterday.
According to a preliminary investigation by the Coast Guard, the final moments before the tug capsized during lunchtime Friday were a sickening flurry for survival.
Pollert and four crew members were dining in the deck-level galley when the captain tried to warn them in time that the tug was going down, said Lt. Commander David Ford, spokesman for the Coast Guard Marine Safety Office in Philadelphia.
Two crew members managed to climb through a wheelhouse window, while three others struggled in rising waters inside the galley to pull themselves out of a doorway to safety, he said.
Capt. Jack Carver tried to grasp Pollert to pull him past the dining table and benches, but apparently lost hold when a wave crashed into the room, Ford said.
"Within seconds, the thing was on its side, and they were climbing up the chair legs like the rungs of a ladder. And then it went vertical shortly after that," Ford said. "Pollert was on the other side of the table and the captain tried helping him up to get him up to that door, and I don't know if he had him by the sleeve or by the belt, but a wave separated them and that was the last he saw him in the mess area."
Carver remains under investigation for the accident, which is being blamed preliminarily on an error of judgment.
The 115-foot tug was overtaken by the 370-foot barge loaded with liquid sugar that it was towing and then was flipped by the barge down into the water. Yesterday, it remained on its side at the bottom of the canal near the Delaware River.
The canal, linking the Chesapeake and Delaware bays, saves a day of transit for ships between Baltimore and northern ports. It has been closed to shipping since the Bay Titan went down.
More than 200 miles to the south, Pollert is remembered as a likable waterman who relished his time on board.
"You get a lot of grumpy old macho types on a boat, and he wasn't like that," said Mike Sherbert, who hired Pollert at Bay Towing Corp. of Norfolk, Va., in March. "He wasn't rough and tough, but he was a good man to have on a boat, a special, sensitive guy."
Neighbor Alissa Coogeshall, who lives in the same Suffolk cul-de-sac of neat Colonial houses where Pollert resided with his brother Brian's family, remembered Steve Pollert as a "really sweet, soft-spoken person" who enjoyed taking care of his niece and nephew.
Pollert had been a jack-of-all-trades on the Bay Titan for two months, cleaning the tug, keeping an eye on the engine room, securing the lines and cooking some meals.
Years earlier, he had done similar work for the company. After a stint in restaurant work in kitchens around the Tidewater area of Virginia, Pollert returned to his passion.
"He said he felt like he had to get a taste of the water again," Sherbert said. "He said he missed the ocean and missed being on the boats, and they were calling him back. He comes from a maritime family, a lot of tugboaters, and I think he felt he was a part of that whole scene."
Tomorrow, divers plan three dives to slip slings on the 500-ton boat, performing risky maneuvers around snapped cables waving in the depths. The boat would then be hoisted and towed two miles to Reedy Island anchorage No. 3.
If the effort succeeds, the channel could be reopened Sunday at the earliest, Ford said. The Army Corps of Engineers must first inspect the canal and pronounce it safe for shipping traffic.
No one is sure of the location of Pollert's body. After the boat is hoisted and dragged out of the canal, searchers will try to find it within the boat.
"This is sort of touchy, and if he's in there, that's great, but the primary concern is to remove the tug from the waterway and to minimize the impact on the environment on wildlife refuges in the area," Ford said.
Pollert was estranged from his former wife and their children, Melinda, now 24, and Steve Jr., 22, for two decades. Though now virtual strangers, Melinda Pollert said her father's death still stung.
"It's pretty sad that I don't know much about him," she said. "I wish I had known him better."
A lasting regret: Pollert's daughter also said yesterday that she wished he had known that he had a grandson, Joshua. The baby celebrated his first birthday May 11, the day Pollert's tug went down.