Staff photo by Matt Fields-Johnson/Chattanooga Times Free Press Tennessee Wildlife Resourse Agency enforcement officers from left Jarod Coxey and Matt Price return from searching for Richard Wilkey, 42, of Soddy-Daisy, who went missing while boating on the Possum Creek Section of Chichamauga Lake Saturday night.
A firefighter untangled a rope wrapped around a metal frame housing dozens of dangling hooks Sunday afternoon as recovery teams searched for a Soddy-Daisy man presumed dead in the Tennessee River.
Standing on the bank of the Possum Creek search command center, Hamilton County Emergency Management Chief Bill Tittle pointed a finger toward the device.
“That’s what they use to pull him up if they find him,” he said.
Richard Wilkey, 42, still is missing after a commercial tugboat pushing nine barges apparently collided with the 15-foot fishing boat he was using with two other men. His friend, Tim Stidle, 45, of Elizabethton, Tenn., was found dead at the collision site Saturday about 5:30 p.m., officials said.
Rescue workers were able to save Mr. Wilkey’s nephew, David Wilkey, 37, also of Soddy-Daisy. Authorities said he recovered his pickup truck Sunday afternoon.
It was one of several weekend water accidents that left at least three dead and others injured.
A mysterious crash
About 15 family members waited underneath shady trees as investigators compiled a bizarre accident’s details.
According to Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency spokesman Dan Hicks, witnesses said the three men operated a trotline as they searched for catfish Saturday afternoon.
Mr. Hicks said a trotline is a legal fishing method consisting of several gallon jugs strung together with rope. Bait hangs from the jugs, which are separated by about 10 feet, and fishermen check them periodically for a catch.
At some point while the men were tending to their trotline, a group of barges approached the fishermen and capsized the small boat.
“They may have been so involved in seeing if they pulled a catfish up from the bottom,” Mr. Hicks said. “Those barges don’t make a whole lot of noise.”
Chief Tittle said the tugboat didn’t stop after the accident, and it is unclear whether its operator even knew about the collision. The tugboat was moving about 5 mph when officials tracked it down.
Authorities also said they did not know if any of the three men were under the influence of alcohol or drugs. The men were not wearing life jackets.
Because the accident involved a commercial vessel and a private boat, the U.S. Coast Guard is conducting its own investigation along with the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency. Coast Guard officials detained the barges and questioned the operator of the tugboat Sunday afternoon, Mr. Hicks said.
Mr. Hicks was unsure Sunday if charges would be filed .
From rescue to recovery
When rescue workers arrived Saturday evening, the fishing boat’s engine was submerged in the water and about four feet of the boat’s nose floated above the surface.
Sonar estimates led workers to believe the surrounding water is about 35 feet deep.
“Finding this man is like a needle in a haystack,” Mr. Tittle said.
About 100 recovery workers from various agencies volunteered Sunday afternoon. Several joined the morning after working security for the final night of Riverbend. They took turns searching the water, refueling on McDonald’s sandwiches, Little Debbie snacks and water.
As day turned into night, family members huddled around Hamilton County Special Tactics and Rescue Services Chief Jim Poplin.
Mr. Poplin wiped his brow after a 20-minute briefing.
“They want to know what’s going on, and we told them we’re here to bring back their relative,” Mr. Poplin said. “It’s sad. There’s not much more you can say.”
One man drowned and a woman nearly did within hours of each other Sunday afternoon in Northern Hamilton County.
According to Hamilton County Sheriff’s Office spokeswoman Janice Atkinson, Chattanooga resident Thomas Hall, 47, jumped in the water to cool off at Suck Creek Boat Ramp. Ms. Atkinson said the man emerged, yelling for help, but his wife was too far away to assist.
His body was found Sunday evening.
Dayton, Tenn., resident Donna Stacks, 45, almost drowned at Isle Road Boat Ramp in Sale Creek when her friends found her on an inner tube face down. She was taken to shore and then to the Rhea County Hospital. Ms. Atkinson said she was airlifted to Erlanger hospital in Chattanooga.
Her condition was not known at press time.
Meigs County officials also reported a 75-year-old man fell off a family boat Sunday afternoon, but Detective Keith Kile said he doesn’t think it was a “real drowning,” blaming the man’s death on medical problems.
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