Overtired tugboat crewmen trying to maneuver a massive crane barge through a construction zone led to the deadly March 2016 allision at New York’s Tappan Zee Bridge that killed three, according to the National Transportation Safety Board.

The 84’x26’x9.2’, 2,400-hp tug Specialist sank within seconds of crashing into a construction barge spudded in the Hudson River. All three men on the vessel died: Paul Amon, 62, of Bayville, N.J., Timothy Conklin, 29, of Westbury, N.Y., and Harry Hernandez, 56, of Staten Island, N.Y.

Amon, who was piloting the tug, initially jumped to the deck of the construction barge, but went back onto the Specialist in an attempt to rescue one of his deckhands, NTSB investigators wrote, affirming witness accounts of the March 12, 2016 accident.

The Specialist, operated by New York Marine Transport Inc., Montauk, N.Y., and two other tugs, the company’s Realist and the Trevor sent to assist by Weeks, were moving the crane barge Weeks 533 south on the Hudson around 5 a.m. when they approached the construction zone where a replacement for the 1950s-era suspension bridge is being built.

“As the vessels approached the bridge construction area, after first giving a favorable report that there was adequate room, the mate of the Specialist (Amon) radioed that there was not enough clearance between the tow and the spudded N181 at pier 31. He said to the other tugboat operators, ‘it’s looking tight, go left [east],’ and then, ‘go hard left,’” the NTSB report states.

Automatic identification system (AIS) data showed the flotilla approaching the Tappan Zee Bridge to the west side of the center of the channel and turning toward the center of the channel, when the Trevor’s AIS was recording a speed of 8 knots.

The Specialist’s starboard side struck the spudded construction barge at 7.8 knots, heavily damaging the tug above the waterline. The current, later estimated at 2 to 3.5 knots, began pushing the tug under water below the construction barge.

According to statements from construction workers, “the mate returned to the tugboat to attempt to help a deckhand who was trapped inside and calling for help,” NTSB investigators wrote. “The Specialist took on water through open doors and rapidly sank with the mate and two deckhands aboard. After the vessel sank, several workers from the construction barge saw the mate in the water, being swept away by the current.

“They threw life rings toward him but he was unresponsive. A nearby rescue boat recovered the mate about 100 yards from the accident site moments later and rushed him to shore; attempts to revive him were unsuccessful.”

The report notes that Amon took the wheel of the Specialist between 12:30 a.m. and 1 a.m. that morning, after its captain “left his vessel for unknown reasons, crossed the deck of the barge, and assumed the helm of the Realist in the upper wheelhouse.” Both crews were in VHF radio communication.

But NTSB investigators had limited information from crewmembers about what transpired during those early morning hours. The report notes “no crewmembers from the Specialist or the Realist answered investigators’ questions due to possible pending charges stemming from an ongoing criminal investigation” by Westchester County officials.

The agency likewise got little information from New York Marine Transportation, the report says. A request for bollard pull specifications went unanswered, and “the owner of the company left the country after the accident and claimed to no longer be a resident of the United States,” the report says. “There was no written tow plan, nor was one submitted to the Coast Guard.”

The investigators did find an April 2014 vessel examination report from the Coast Guard that listed 18 deficiencies on the Specialist, ranging from inoperable lights to a lack of safety and firefighting training. A statement from a deckhand on the Realist shed no light on the change of captains in the wheelhouse, but told how the second tug had been dispatched on the morning of March 11 over company concerns about the Specialist’s progress as is crew dealt with gusty winds and rough conditions.

Logbook entries from the Specialist recounted a grounding, and the tow being spun around in mid-river despite full power, leading investigators to suspect the tug was underpowered for its initially solo assignment.

At that time, the 1,800-hp Realist “was docked in Staten Island with a captain, a deckhand, and a female passenger aboard,” the report says. “The captain was credentialed as master of steam or motor vessels of not more than 100 GRT (domestic tonnage) upon near coastal waters. The deckhand did not have any credentials.”

According to a written statement from that deckhand, “a representative from the company called the captain of the Realist and asked him to drive his car to meet up with the Specialist and relieve its captain, but the captain of the Realist convinced the company to take the Realist up the Hudson River to assist. Accordingly, at 0900 on March 11, the Realist departed Staten Island.”

The tugs met up late in the day March 11 and resumed the southward tow. Investigators got access to text messages from one of the Specialist deckhands to his girlfriend, that included descriptions of difficult conditions and getting little sleep, the report says.

“At 0217 on March 11, he texted that he had slept for ‘maybe two hours then got woken up’ and that he was ‘up being lookout watching the disaster unfold.’ Later that morning, at 0850, he texted that the fog was clearing but that the wind and the current were making it impossible to steer,” the report says. “Once the Realist came to assist, the Specialist deckhand texted, ‘The Realist captain is alone on the Realist so I have a feeling I’m gonna have to go over and steer . . . let alone pushing something that you can barely see around.’

“Based on pictures taken of the tower crane barge after the accident, with the configuration of tugboats alongside the barge, the crane presented obstructed visibility for operators even in the upper wheelhouse.”

By the time the three-tug flotilla approached the Tappan Zee, winds were light at 5 knots and the construction site was adequately lit as the Coast Guard required, NTSB investigators found.

The NTSB team interviewed Amon’s daughter — herself a credentialed unlimited third mate and master of towing vessels, with Hudson River experience — who said that “while her father was aboard leading up to the accident, he indicated that there were times when three of the four crew members were sleeping at once, leaving the captain alone in the wheelhouse, and that the entire crew had been awake the night before the accident due to weather conditions.”

AIS data showed the tugs had increased speed in the hour before the accident, “at a time when caution should have been of utmost importance given the ongoing construction near the bridge,” investigators wrote. “In addition to the increase in speed, initially, the mate had indicated to the other tugboats that the Specialist tow had enough clearance to get around the construction barge, when in actuality it did not. It is unclear how the mate judged the distance, whether by sight or by radar, but with increased fatigue, accuracy and timing degrade, as does the ability to integrate information.

“These may have been factors in the mate’s judgment of distance and speed. If the mate was unaware that the tow had increased speed, he might have thought there was still time to maneuver around the barge.”

Investigators concluded “the probable cause of the collision and sinking of the Specialist was inadequate manning, resulting in fatigued crew members navigating three tugboats with obstructed visibility due to the size of the crane on the barge they were towing and the location of the tugboats alongside the barge.”

Contributing Editor Kirk Moore was a reporter for the Asbury Park Press for over 30 years before joining WorkBoat in 2015. He wrote several award-winning stories on marine, environmental, coastal and military issues that helped drive federal and state government policy changes. He has also been an editor for WorkBoat’s sister publication, National Fisherman, for over 25 years. Moore was awarded the Online News Association 2011 Knight Award for Public Service for the “Barnegat Bay Under Stress,” 2010 series that led to the New Jersey state government’s restoration plan. He lives in West Creek, N.J.