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Guard to throw towboats a line

| Wednesday, Jan. 19, 2005

The U.S. Coast Guard said Tuesday that it would enact safety measures to better protect towboat crew members during high water.

The announcement came in response to a series of accidents, including the Jan. 9 sinking of the towboat Elizabeth M that killed three crewmen. A fourth is missing and presumed dead.

"It's kind of, 'enough is enough,' " said Coast Guard Cmdr. Wyman Briggs.

The Coast Guard had convened a "high water" task force to set guidelines for towing in fast rivers. He also announced tougher standards for boats that have been involved in accidents.

The Elizabeth M was swept over the Montgomery Lock and Dam in Industry, Beaver County, in currents of 12 mph, four times faster than normal. Persistent high waters have stalled salvage operations. The body of the missing man, Rick Conklin, 40, of Crucible, Greene County, is believed to be inside the boat.

A deckhand who survived the accident, Jacob Wilds, 26, of Derry Township, said other vessels had warned the Elizabeth M against going upstream through the locks because of the swift current.

Briggs said the task force has already met and will examine whether to impose towing limits, identify dangerous stretches of river and issue safety rules during high water.

The task force also will consider whether to require an assist vessel in dangerous parts of the Ohio River during fast currents.

The panel includes members of the Waterways Association of Pittsburgh, a local industry group, as well as representatives of the Coast Guard and the Army Corps of Engineers. Calls to the association were not immediately returned.

Briggs said the panel also includes a representative of Campbell Transportation Co., the Dunlevy, Washington County, operator of the Elizabeth M. The company did not immediately respond to calls seeking comment.

Briggs announced he would dock any boat involved in an accident until its owner completes an in-house investigation into its cause. In the past year, accidents have caused 20 barges to break loose, Briggs said.

The new rule was first used Saturday, after four barges broke free from a depot on Neville Island. One barge became lodged on the Dashields Dam, one on the Emsworth Dam, and another sank in the river between the two. The fourth barge was recovered.

Briggs said he shut down the Sam S, the towboat that had brought the barges to the depot, until its owner, E & G Enterprises, of Moon Township, completed its investigation. Calls to E & G were not immediately returned.

Dennis O'Bryan, an attorney for Wilds, said the high-water task force was overdue.

"It's about time they did something. It's too bad four people had to die in order for that to come about," O'Bryan said.

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