Hamilton County DA investigating fatal boating crash

Hamilton County DA investigating fatal boating crash

December 30th, 2010 by Chris Carroll in News

Staff File Photo by Dan Henry Emergency personnel from TWRA and Volunteer State Search look on Chickamauga Lake for the missing body of Richard Wilkey, 42, who went missing after his vessel was struck by a barge.

A Chattanooga-based company that owns the commercial tugboat that killed two fishermen this summer has filed court papers blaming the fishermen for causing their own deaths.

The filing by Serodino Inc. in U.S. District Court is designed to limit civil damages in the event of a lawsuit. The company filed papers on Dec. 17 "seeking exoneration" from liability for the accident. In the papers, the company says the deaths were "not caused or contributed to by any fault or neglect of Serodino."

The incident "was proximately caused and/or contributed to solely by the actions and/or negligence of Richard Wilkey, Tim Spidle, David Wilkey, and others, for which Serodino has no legal liability," the complaint states without elaboration.

Soddy-Daisy native Richard Wilkey, 52, and Elizabethton, Tenn., resident Tim Spidle, 45, died June 19 after the tugboat collided with the fishing boat. A third fisherman, David "Christopher" Wilkey, survived.

Meanwhile, state officials have spoken to the Hamilton County District Attorney's Office about possible criminal charges against Serodino, an investigator said.

"We're meeting with the DA's office again within a couple weeks," Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency statewide investigator Matt Majors said last week. "There may be criminal charges pending."

But finishing the investigation could take several more weeks.

"That collision is one of the most complex our guys have ever had to deal with," Majors said. "The who, what, when and where is done. The why is the toughest part."

The company's president, Pete Serodino, did not return several phone messages asking for comment.

But Wilkey family attorney Jerry Summers faults the tugboat company.

"We believe Serodino's responsible," he said.

At the time of the accident, the tugboat -- known as the Bearcat -- was pushing a barge formation three barges wide and three deep. Each barge is about 35 feet wide and 200 feet long, so the entire tugboat-barge combination was about 647 feet long, investigators said.

A preliminary report states the fishermen were in a navigation channel as the tugboat traveled at 5 mph. Wilkey told investigators the men didn't notice the huge rig until it was 300 feet away.

If Wilkey's story is true, the men had about 41 seconds to get out of the way, but Wilkey also told investigators the fishing boat's engine stalled, and he remembers one of his companions encouraging the men to "jump for it."

TWRA investigators, Hamilton County District Attorney Bill Cox and Assistant District Attorney Neal Pinkston met in October to discuss the incident, according to Majors.

"Once TWRA's investigation is completed and they contact us, we will review their investigative file," Pinkston said last week.

He declined to comment further.

Serodino Inc. is facing questions from U.S. Coast Guard investigators on whether a legally mandated lookout was stationed on the Bearcat at the time of the crash, Majors said. Under federal navigation laws, all vessels are required to have lookouts, and investigators also are looking at whether the fishing boat had one.

The tugboat didn't stop after the collision, and it's unclear whether its operator even knew about it, officials said.

Blood tests for drugs and alcohol are routine procedures in such investigations and have been completed, Majors said, but he said he couldn't discuss the results. All parties were tested for substances, he said, including the deceased men and the nine-man crew on the barge.

Serodino also blamed crash victims in 2009 when the same Bearcat collided with a fishing boat in Loudon County, Tenn., killing Jones Bower Bare, 53, of Trap Hill, N.C.

In both accidents, Serodino tried to limit potential civil damages to the value of the Bearcat without cargo. Serodino valued the empty vessel at $1.1 million, court records show.

Contact staff writer Chris Carroll at ccarroll@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6610.