Boss says Elizabeth M captain ignored orders
PITTSBURGH -…A towboat captain involved in a barge accident that killed at least three crewmen disregarded an order to have a “helper” vessel accompany him as he pushed six coal barges up the Ohio River in turbulent conditions Jan. 9, his employer said Monday.
Donald Grimm, president of Campbell Transportation Co., testified at a Coast Guard inquiry that Elizabeth M Capt. George “Toby” Zappone left the company’s docks in Georgetown, Beaver County, about 10 p.m. Jan. 8, while boat assigned to assist because of high water and strong currents was still being fueled.
That boat, the Richard C, did not leave until about midnight.
Grimm read aloud the written orders that the Richard C assist with the barge transport. He said he had not spoken with Zappone about starting the trip without help.
“It was the captain’s decision” to leave, said Grimm, whose company is based in Dunlevy. “I believe there were some errors in judgment.”
Grimm was the first witness to testify in a week of hearings about the accident, which killed Tom Fisher, 25, of New Cumberland, W.Va.; Edward Crevda, 22, of West Brownsville, Washington County; and Scott Stewart, 36, of Elm Grove, W.Va.
Rick Conklin, 40, of Crucible, Greene County, is missing and presumed to be dead.
Zappone is scheduled to testify today, and the two other survivors are to testify Wednesday.
Zappone’s lawyer, Frederick W. Thieman, declined comment on Grimm’s testimony.
Grimm said the boat captain decides whether conditions are safe to be on the river, and Zappone consulted with other towboat captains and Campbell officials on the morning of Jan. 8.
Grimm said Zappone “was comfortable with the orders” for moving the coal barges from Georgetown to Braddock with the help of the Richard C.
“It’s his ultimate decision even to begin the voyage,” Grimm said, adding that refusing to go because of the weather would carry no ramifications for the captain.
Grimm described Zappone as a captain with 20 years’ experience and no record of poor decisions.
The boat was swept over the Montgomery dam in Industry, Beaver County, about 2 a.m. Jan. 9 after its six barges broke loose and the Elizabeth M tried to keep them from going over the dam. The 12 mph river current, four times faster than normal, pushed the boat and three barges over the dam. The boat has yet to be removed.
Grimm said many of the company’s towboats were not traveling that day, and crews were monitoring tied-off barges to make sure they were not swept away in the swift current. Two other Campbell towboats, however, went through the Montgomery lock that day, he said.
Grimm said that because of the conditions, the company reduced – by at least half – the size of the tow the Elizabeth M was transporting that day. He said the Richard C was supposed to be with the Elizabeth M the entire trip.
Grimm also testified about an “outdraft” – a current pushing barges toward the middle of the river – just above the Montgomery lock and dam. He said Zappone would have been aware of it.
With the speed of that day’s current, “it would have been a tremendous outdraft,” he said.
Grimm said the Coast Guard gave no warning to suggest the river was not navigable the day of the crash.
Grimm testified that the crew of the Elizabeth M contacted company mechanics Jan. 7 and 8 to request maintenance on the boat’s steering system, but he said the problem was routine, not critical. The work was not done before the accident.
Coast Guard Lt. Cmdr. Michael Kelly, chairman of the hearings, said the purpose is to gather information about the crash. Afterward, he will write a report on his findings and could recommend changes to river traffic procedures or possibly criminal charges if he finds negligence.