The crew of a tugboat that sank Saturday at the Tappan Zee bridge in New York apparently realized they were dangerously close just before an early morning allision with a construction barge on the Hudson River. All three died, and one was still missing after the Saturday accident, authorities said.
The 84’x26’x9’ 2,400 hp Specialist, owned by Specialist LLC, Montauk, N.Y. and operated by New York Marine Towing Inc., was one of three company tugs moving a tower crane barge downriver from Albany, N.Y., bound for Jersey City, N.J. The Specialist had its port side on the shoulder of the barge, when its starboard side hit another barge anchored at the New York Thruway bridge construction site. The tug sank quickly around 5:20 a.m.
Paul Amon, 62, of Bayville, N.J., was located in the river within 10 minutes and taken to an ambulance onshore, the Coast Guard and Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino said. A Coast Guard 45’ medium response boat and crews from state and Westchester County local agencies continued to search the river around the sinking site in about 40’ of water.
Crewman Timothy Conklin, 29, of Westbury, N.Y., was found Sunday, while searchers continued looking for Harry Hernandez, 56, of Staten Island, N.Y. CBS New York reported Tuesday that Hernandez's body had been located inside the sunken tug, but not recovered.
The construction area is on the north side of the Tappan Zee bridge, which has carried New York Thruway traffic over the river between Westchester and Rockland counties since the late 1950s, and is to be replaced by the $3.9 billion new bridge in 2018.
It was a shocking accident for the New York workboat community, where busy Hudson River commercial traffic has transited the work zone for years without a major incident.
“The barge and accompanying tugs did not come down the middle of a 600’ wide U.S. Coast Guard designated channel, instead approaching too close to a construction barge stationed next to Pier 31, where work on the Tappan Zee bridge replacement is happening,” Gov. Andrew Cuomo said Saturday.
However, a day later Cuomo said it appeared to be “a pure accident,” citing radio transmissions indicating the tug crews knew they were getting too close to the barge and needed to move to the left. Bridge builders Tappan Zee Constructors had 13 workers on the anchored barge at the time, but none were injured, Cuomo said.
A fuel spill estimated at up to 5,000 gals. put out a slick approximately 100 yards wide and five miles long, and Westchester County initiated a cleanup agreement with Miller Environmental Group, Calverton, N.Y., to manage the diesel spill. The state Department of Environment Conservation put its oil spill team on scene with a 31’ boat and a 44’ boat to monitor the operation.
State police Superintendent Joseph A. D'Amico said sonar operators and divers worked to determine the tug position so recovery operations could begin. On March 3, the Coast Guard issued an updated Notice to Mariners about construction activity around the bridge and stressed the need for transiting vessels to stay in the center 600’ of the main channel.
— NYPD Special Ops (@NYPDSpecialops) March 14, 2016
“The work will involve over a hundred pieces of floating equipment and support vessels that will be moored/anchored or transiting from the Westchester shoreline to the Rockland shoreline including the side channels and portions of the main navigation channel,” the advisory stated. “Mariners are advised that the side channels to the east and west of the main channel are closed to vessel traffic and are advised to use only the center 600' of the main channel to navigate in a north-south direction through the area. Additionally, mariners are strongly advised to stay clear of all construction equipment and support vessels by 1,000’ or more when transiting the area.”
In a 2013 accident at the construction site, a 19’ recreational boat ran into an anchored barge at night, killing a woman days before her wedding along with her fiance’s best man. The operator in that case, who had been under the influence of alcohol, was sentenced to two years in prison for manslaughter.
Lighting on the barges was an issue in that case, although the Coast Guard and state Thruway officials found the work zone was properly lit. Officials are reviewing that issue again after the Specialist sinking.