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OHIO RIVER Attorney is retained in towboat accident



Published: Wed, January 12, 2005 @ 12:00 a.m.



The U.S. Coast Guard is investigating the sinking of the Elizabeth M.

PITTSBURGH (AP) -- A survivor and the family of a man killed in Sunday's fatal towboat sinking on the Ohio River has retained a maritime attorney in anticipation of a lawsuit.

Jacob Wilds and the family of victim Tom Fisher, of Latrobe, both deckhands, have hired Dennis M. O'Bryan, an attorney from Birmingham, Mich.

Three of the towboat's crewmembers died and three others were pulled from the water after Sunday's accident. A seventh crewmember is missing, but believed to be dead inside the Elizabeth M., which is still resting on the bottom of the fast-moving Ohio.

The U.S. Coast Guard is investigating the sinking.

Litigation concerns

The boat's owner, Campbell Transportation Co. Inc., of Charleroi, wanted to speak with Wilds before he spoke with the Coast Guard, O'Bryan said.

"Having sued Campbell Transportation Co. on behalf of injured crewmembers in the past, I know how they operate," O'Bryan said. "When my client speaks to the Coast Guard, I want it to be untainted by even the appearance of undue influence by the company."

O'Bryan believes Campbell Transportation will sue the survivors to limit its liability to the vessel's value or to absolve any claims by the crew or their families. Such suits are typical, he said.

O'Bryan said Don Grimm, the president of Campbell Transportation, should "state now, unequivocally, that Campbell Transportation Co. will not file for limitation of liability, and not oppose the crewmen and the families of the deceased getting their full compensation."

Grimm didn't immediately return a message from The Associated Press to respond.

Swept away

O'Bryan said one question that should be answered is whether the Elizabeth M. was powerful enough to push its six-barge load in the rain-swollen river, which was flowing high and several times faster than normal.

The pilot had successfully gone through the lock at the Montgomery Island Dam in Industry, about 25 miles northwest of Pittsburgh, shortly before 2:30 a.m. Sunday. Strong currents began sweeping the towboat and barges toward the dam, according to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Because some of the crew were believed to be on the barges, the pilot separated from the barges to try to swing around and push them from another downstream angle, officials said. But the current pushed the boat and barges into the dam, with the boat and three barges going through.

O'Bryan said it doesn't matter if the sinking is determined to be pilot error.

"The company's responsible for the pilot. You can't sue a fellow crew member," O'Bryan said.

Wreck recovery pending

Meanwhile, the Ohio remained too high Tuesday for a salvage crew to recover the towboat, which is resting just below the dam gates on the dam's concrete substructure, with only the pilot house visible.

Grimm said in a telephone interview earlier Tuesday that he hoped the boat could be recovered this week. When the water level permits, divers will strap nylon slings around the vessel and cranes would lift it, Grimm said.

The Elizabeth M. is about 50 years old, but was rebuilt with a new hull and engine about five years ago and is worth about $750,000, Grimm said. It is 108 feet long, 26 1/2 feet wide and about 27 feet high.

Salvage workers will also use slings to raise the barges, each about 195 feet long, 26 feet wide and 12 feet deep. Each barge was carrying about 1,150 tons of coal from West Virginia to Braddock, Grimm said.

Most of the coal has been washed away, Grimm said, but whatever can be salvaged would be. The coal poses no environmental harm, he said.




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