Single cause unlikely in fatal boat accident

The investigation could range from condition of crew to shape of the vessel.
PITTSBURGH (AP) -- Coast Guard investigators trying to find out what caused a fatal towboat sinking on the Ohio River have a dizzying array of questions to answer such as whether barges were loaded properly, whether wires and winches were in working order and even whether workers had taken cold medicine, according to former investigators.
Investigators will try to piece together the chain of events that sent the Elizabeth M through a lock the Montgomery Island Dam, about 30 miles down river from Pittsburgh on the Ohio, killing at least three crewmen and leaving another missing and presumed dead.
Little info available
The process is similar to the probe of a plane crash but often with less evidence to work with, former investigators said.
"When they recover everything, there are no black boxes on these boats. The only thing they might have is logs and those sorts of things," said Don Green, who worked for the Coast Guard for 23 years, including 15 years as an inspector and investigator.
Besides a lack of sophisticated equipment found on larger ships or commercial airliners, there's also seldom a single cause in such accidents, former investigators said.
"Usually it is not based on one failure; there are all of these little things, and if someone had acted on any of them, it may have been avoided," said Randy Sharpe, a Coast Guard accident investigator for 18 years and now a consultant in Alameda, Calif.
The pilot of the Elizabeth M managed to guide the towboat and its six coal-loaded barges through the lock at the Montgomery Island Dam shortly before 2:30 a.m. Sunday, officials said. But strong currents on the rain-swollen river swept the boat and three barges over the spillway while the other barges sank above the dam, according to the U.S. Coast Guard and the Army Corps of Engineers.
Three crewmen died, and a fourth crew member is missing and presumed dead still inside the Elizabeth M, which is resting on the bottom of the fast-moving Ohio. Three crewmen were rescued.
Crew interviews first
Former investigators say the probe usually begins by interviews with surviving crew members along with anyone the crew talked to, including company dispatchers, the boat's owners and other boaters in the area.
"The towboat people talk to their office all day, everyday, so they have to have someone who talked to this operator. You want to find out the last conversation he had. Did he declare an emergency or what happened?" said Green, now head of KDON Marine Consulting in Houston.
Two of the surviving crewmen have been interviewed, and investigators plan to talk to the third later this week, said Cmdr. Wyman Briggs, head of Coast Guard in Pittsburgh. Radio chatter, however, isn't recorded by either the Coast Guard office or the Army Corps of Engineers, officials said.
Copyright 2005 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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