published Thursday, July 1st, 2010

Crews similar in fatal boat collisions


by Chris Carroll

Five employees of a Chattanooga shipping company were on board a tugboat involved in two separate fatal accidents in the last year, records show.

Reports from the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency reveal similarities in the accidents, mostly regarding the staffing on the Bearcat tugboat, owned by Serodino Inc.

Records show that William Stevens, 31, served as tugboat operator during the first accident on June 26, 2009. The collision happened about 2 a.m. as three men slept in their fishing boat after anchoring it in a navigation channel on Watts Bar Lake in Loudon County, Tenn.

The collision's force threw the men from the boat, and Traphill, N.C., native Jones Bower Bare, 53, died from his injuries, documents show.

The report cites Mr. Stevens for "failure to keep a proper lookout" and "failure to use available means" to avoid collision.

A preliminary state report released Wednesday shows that Mr. Stevens also was serving as a crew member during the June 19 collision between a nine-barge set and a small fishing boat.

The accident killed Soddy-Daisy native Richard Wilkey, 52, and Tim Spidle, 42, of Elizabethton, Tenn., while the men were checking their lines for catfish.

David "Christopher" Wilkey, 37, the lone fishing boat survivor in the June 19 accident, told investigators that the men didn't see the barges until they were 100 yards away, giving them about 40 seconds to move.

Mr. Wilkey contends that the engine stalled on the boat, leaving him and his comrades adrift in the river.

The nine-barge set did not stop after striking the fishing boat.

Pete Serodino, owner of the shipping company, has declined repeated interview requests, and Mr. Stevens hung up the phone when reached Wednesday.

Four other crew members -- John T. McIllwain, 20; Michael Powell, 44; Betty L. Shepherd, 70; and Larry Shultz, 47 -- worked on the Bearcat's crew during both accidents, according to reports.

Serodino Inc. and the fishermen are facing questions about whether a proper lookout was on board either boat at the time of the June 19 crash. The state report is inconclusive on that issue.

"I can't say that there was anything they didn't do or try to take care of," said Ms. Shepherd, who has worked 14 years as the Bearcat's chef. "When you've got a lot of barges in front, it's hard to see. I'm very upset, but I wish the men on the fishing boat would have been more observant."

Mr. Powell said he was asleep at the time of the accident and did "nothing wrong."

Mr. McIllwain declined comment, and Mr. Shultz could not be reached Wednesday.

Warren Luetke was the tugboat operator in the June 19 accident. He declined comment when reached Wednesday.

"The truth is going to come out as to what really happened," said Chattanooga attorney Jerry Summers, who is representing the Wilkey family. "Right now it's premature to say anything beyond that."

Mr. Summers said nothing has been filed in court regarding the June 19 accident.

Regarding the June 2009 accident, a $5 million wrongful death suit brought against Serodino Inc. is being litigated in federal court.

Investigators said fault went both ways in the 2009 accident, as William Bare, the man who operated the small fishing boat involved, was cited for "interfering with safe operation" and anchoring in a narrow channel.

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