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Survivors recount tugboat tragedy

Crew members testify in a Coast Guard hearing about the sinking of the Valour off the coast of North Carolina.

By STEVE HUETTEL
Published March 2, 2006


TAMPA - Survivors of a tugboat tragedy that took the lives of three shipmates gave chilling testimony Wednesday about how the vessel tipped precariously in a howling storm before sinking beneath them.

Water inside the Maritrans tug Valour made it list sharply to the port side while battling 15-foot seas off Cape Fear, N.C., crew members said at a Coast Guard hearing here on the Jan. 18 accident.

Widows sobbed quietly as crewmen told a room of about 50 people how one shipmate died of a heart attack and another was swept out to sea. Seamen on another tug rescued the chief engineer, but he had suffered a heart attack and died on board.

Survivors couldn't say how that much water leaked inside the Valour. Investigators hope to find out after Maritrans, a Tampa petroleum shipper, has a salvage company raise 135-foot tug next month.

"After that, we expect to know a whole lot more about what happened," said Coast Guard Lt. Cmdr. Charles Barbee, the chief investigator.

Maritrans also hasn't determined what caused the accident, officials said. President Jonathan Whitworth noted the inherent dangers faced by merchant mariners.

"Every day, seafarers are confronted with dramatic changes in working conditions that demand they apply their training and professional skills quickly and effectively," he said at the opening of the hearing. "Regrettably . . . the hazards of the sea claimed our tug Valour and three of its crew."

The Valour left a refinery near Philadelphia on Jan. 15, pushing a barge filled with 5.5-million gallons of heavy fuel oil headed for Corpus Christi, Texas. The weather was calm but forecasts called for storms and higher seas off of North Carolina, said Capt. Michael Lynch.

Midday on Jan. 17, he directed crew members to move the tug out of the "notch" behind the 492-foot barge and tow it from the front before the weather got too rough.

Lynch noticed the tug was listing slightly by late afternoon. After nightfall, the seas picked up and the boat's leaning to port was more noticeable, at about a 10-degree angle, he said.

Chief engineer Richard Smoot sent word to Lynch that everything was fine in the engine room, but Lynch said he "wasn't comfortable" as the list became more severe. Between 11 and 11:30 p.m., he rang a general alarm to muster the crew and sent out a Mayday message on the radio.

Things went from bad to worse. Chief mate Fred Brenner, 53, was going down from the wheel house high above the deck when he fell downstairs and suffered an apparent heart attack.

Lynch radioed the Coast Guard for a helicopter to evacuate Brenner. After a half hour of trying to revive him, crew members couldn't detect a pulse.

Steady 15-foot waves lashed the tug, which by then was listing at a 45-degree angle. Crewman Earl Shepard fell overboard. The barge was pulling beside the Valour, threatening to pass and pull the tug sideways to the waves.

Lynch ordered his second mate to detach the tow line and let the barge loose. He spotted Shepard's green fluorescent emergency light in the darkness. Lynch told the tug's cook to keep an eye on it while he steered the vessel back to Shepard.

The first Coast Guard helicopter dropped a rescue swimmer and plucked Shepard out of the ocean. Another tug, the Justine Foss, radioed that it was sailing toward the Valour to help.

But the tug kept leaning farther to port, so much so that Lynch and other crew members worried the Valour might capsize.

"It was getting so bad, you were falling all over the place," said assistant engineer Louis Gatto. He and Smoot had to abandon the engine room. But oddly, neither of them had noticed an unusual amount of water in the bilge below.

Finally, Lynch ordered everyone to the bow to prepare for evacuation. Another Coast Guard helicopter dropped a life raft - the Valour's had been lost - but waves were sweeping it past the boat.

Dressed in survival suits, the remaining seven crew members on board decided not to jump for the raft. Then water shifted inside the boat, the stern sank and the bow pitched up. Gatto and the cook, John Template, jumped overboard toward the rescue tug. Others were knocked off by waves.

The Justine Foss crew pulled out six men. Ron Emory, 56, was swept out to sea. The bodies of Emory and Brenner, left on the ship, have not been found. Rescuers were unable to revive Smoot, the 50-year-old chief engineer who suffered a heart attack.

Valour crew members testified Wednesday they found a small crack in the hull above the water line and patched it the afternoon of the 17th. They also observed water dripping in from a propeller shaft. But neither was leaking enough to cause concern, they said.

Pending results of the investigation, the Coast Guard could file charges against Maritrans and the tug's officers, but "there's no information leading us in that direction," said Barbee, the chief investigator.

Another public hearing will be held after the ship, 107 feet underwater, is raised. A final report should be completed by July or August, he said.

Steve Huettel can be reached at huettel@sptimes.com or 813 226-3384.

[Last modified March 2, 2006, 09:44:02]


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