Four members of a tugboat and dredging crew are missing and feared dead in the cold Elk River after the tug collided with a 520-foot freighter yesterday morning in fog 40 miles northeast of Baltimore.
Five others from the tug Swift were rescued after narrowly escaping from the sinking vessel. The 60-foot tug rolled and sank within 20 seconds, apparently trapping some men inside, crew members told rescuers.
The search for survivors was called off by evening and is scheduled to resume this morning. Divers battled low visibility, water temperatures in the low 40s and sudden shifting of the wrecked tug, which was submerged in 35 feet of water.
"We were hoping for an air pocket or tapping on the hull, but there was no sign," said battalion Chief Arthur Cate of the Baltimore Fire Department, whose divers were involved in rescue efforts.
Authorities had not identified the missing crew by last night. Nor did they speculate on what caused the accident near the western mouth of the 14-mile Chesapeake and Delaware Canal, which was later closed by the Army Corps of Engineers.
The freighter, the A.V. Kastner, suffered a manhole-size gash in its hull, but was able to inch under tow toward Baltimore to disgorge its cargo of gypsum rock.
U.S. Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest visited the scene and expressed deep concern. "It is worthy of a hearing in Washington," he said. "We need to take a look at what kind of communication there was, especially when lives have been lost."
An official with the Association of Maryland Pilots said the pilot guiding the freighter made arrangements to pass on the port - or left - side. For some reason, the tug, toward the rear of a group of dredging barges headed north, strayed to the side of the 450-foot-wide shipping channel where the Kastner was moving south, said Capt. Eric Nielsen, association president.
Three oil drums found in the water were leaking oil, but environmental damage seemed "minimal," said Alan Williams of the Maryland Department of Environment. The 5,000 gallons of fuel on the tug did not appear to be leaking.
It was around 6:45 a.m. when a violent noise woke nearby residents of this region of farms and rolling hills. Some thought it might be thunder or ordnance testing at nearby Aberdeen Proving Ground. Then, amid the foghorns, came the screech of grinding metal.
"You could hear the splintering sound of steel on steel; it shook the whole house," said Tom Putney, who lives on a riverfront bluff a quarter-mile from the crash site.
No one could see anything through the fog, though. "Next thing I knew, there were helicopters all over," said another area resident, Robert Boutlin.
Out in the shipping channel, the Kastner, owned by a subsidiary of USG Corp., was bound for a Baltimore plant owned by another subsidiary, United States Gypsum Co. It carried nearly 18,000 tons of gypsum rock, the raw material used to make drywall.
Heading toward it was the Swift, one of two tugs escorting dredge barges toward the canal and, eventually, an oil refinery in Delaware City, Del. The tug belongs to Norfolk Dredging Co. of Chesapeake, Va.
The rescue effort began within moments of the collision. But by the time a Maryland State Police helicopter hovered overhead, the tug was upside down in the water.
"You couldn't have seen 20 feet," Sgt. Walter Kerr said. "When we got here it was capsized. Then the stern went down with the bow straight up."
Rescuers in boats searched frantically for survivors who had to make a hasty escape before the tug went down. Gloria Young said her husband, Roy, told her he had just seconds to jump into the water.
"He got off [the tug] before the boat actually threw him off," his wife said. "He said 'barely.' "
Young, 48, of Middleburg, Fla., was one of two men pulled from the water by the second tug, the Buchanan 14, which the Coast Guard said was also involved in the collision. Troy Link, 38, of Hampton, Va., was also rescued. The two were taken to Elkton and treated at Union Hospital of Cecil County before being released.
Two others clambered into a life raft thrown by members of the Kastner's crew and made it to the western shore of the river.
A fifth crew member, who had head and shoulder injuries, was taken to Maryland Shock Trauma Center in Baltimore. The man, whose identity was not released, was in serious but stable condition, a hospital spokeswoman said. He was injured when a refrigerator in the tug's galley fell on him.
Divers immediately ran into problems. "There was a lot of debris, cable, chain and some diesel [fuel] in the water," Cate said. Three divers made two 30-minute dives each, he said. All three suffered minor hypothermia.
Officials at both Norfolk Dredging and USG Corp. said they could not discuss details of the accident.
Norfolk Dredging did not release names of missing crew members, who were leading a caravan that the Coast Guard described as an equipment barge, a dredging barge and another derrick barge. The fleet was trailed by about 500 feet of flexible piping used to suck out dredge material.
"It's a terrible tragedy and our hearts go out to the families," spokesman Steve Newton said.
The Kastner, a frequent visitor to Baltimore, was piloted by Capt. Timothy M. Cober, a 29-year veteran of the Association of Maryland Pilots. The pilots guide ships visiting the port of Baltimore through shipping channels of the Chesapeake Bay and C&D; Canal.
The scene of the collision is not far from where a tugboat crewman died last May. Steven Pollert of Suffolk, Va., perished when the Bay Titan capsized in the C&D; Canal. Five others were rescued.
Sun staff writers Paul Adams and Johnathon E. Briggs contributed to this article.