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3 killed in barge accident

| Monday, Jan. 10, 2005

Three barge workers drowned and a fourth was missing and presumed dead Sunday after a fierce Ohio River current pushed a tugboat and thousands of tons of coal over a dam in Beaver County.

Rescuers pulled two others from the partially submerged tug and plucked a third from the near-freezing waters after the 2:20 a.m. accident at the Montgomery Locks and Dam in Industry.

"The worst thing was, you could see two people in the boat screaming for help," said Chuck Ward, assistant fire chief in Industry.

The three survivors who were rescued by other tugboats were treated at area hospitals and released.

It was unclear if all seven workers -- employees of Campbell Transportation Co. of Dunlevy -- were on the tug or if some were on the barges when the accident occurred, investigators from the U.S. Coast Guard said.

Killed were Edward Crevda, 22, of West Brownsville, Washington County; Scott Stewart, 36, of Elm Grove, a suburb of Wheeling, W.Va.; and Tom Fisher, 25, of Latrobe, Westmoreland County.

Rick Conklin, 40, of Crucible, Greene County, was either swept away by the current or remains trapped in the wreckage of the tug, named the Elizabeth M, authorities said.

Treated and released from The Medical Center in Beaver were crew members John Thomas and Jacob Wilds. The pilot of the tug, Toby Zappone, was treated and released from Aliquippa Community Hospital, authorities said.

Zappone and Wilds were trapped outside the pilot house of the doomed tug for nearly two hours until they were hoisted to safety by the crew of the Rocket, a tug from C & C Marine Maintenance Co. of Georgetown, Beaver County.

"They were standing against a railing behind the pilot house and yelling for help," said John Anderson, the lock master at Montgomery. "They were yelling they needed a helicopter to rescue them."

Thomas and the others were pulled from the water by crew members of at least two other tug crews. Crevda was pronounced dead at The Medical Center in Beaver, said Deputy Coroner Renea Esoldo.

Fisher and Stewart, who spent most of his life working on the river, were pronounced dead at the scene, Esoldo said. It appeared they had been wearing life jackets, she said.

Autopsies showed Crevda, Stewart and Fisher drowned, Esoldo said.

The Elizabeth M was traveling upriver toward Pittsburgh when the accident happened, said Richard C. Lockwood of the Pittsburgh District of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

The tug was pushing the barges -- each loaded with about 1,000 tons of coal -- out of the lock chamber when the intense current pushed the barges sideways into the river, dragging the tug with it.

"He was shoving out of Montgomery Lock and Dam and something happened -- we have no idea -- and the boat went over the dam," said Don Grimm, president of Campbell Transportation, one of the region's largest river-transport firms.

"We're concerned with the crew members and their families right now."

Conklin's stepdaughter, Ashley Harbager, said the family was told, "The water was high and they were trying to get them (the barges) back. The water was high, and the current was strong, and the boat went over the dam."

As the current carried the barges toward the dam, the crew disconnected the tug. Zappone then raced around and got the tug between the fast-moving barges and the dam, Lockwood said.

Lockwood said he believes the crew members may have all raced back to the tug before it disconnected but others told The Associated Press that they believe Zappone might have tried to swing the boat around to help crew members stranded on the barges.

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