Relatives of a man missing in Chickamauga Lake say they do not understand why his fishing boat didn't move Saturday to avoid a huge nine-barge load being pushed down the Tennessee River by a tugboat.
"Ricky's been fishing on this river for 30 years," said Richard Wilkey's brother, Melvin. "Every time I was with him and we saw a barge coming, we'd drop the line and get out the way. Something went wrong at some point on their boat."
The resulting collision led to the death of Tim Spidle, 45, of Elizabethton, Tenn. Mr. Wilkey's nephew, David "Chris" Wilkey, 37, of Soddy-Daisy, survived with no injuries.
Richard Wilkey, a 42-year-old Soddy-Daisy native, still is missing.
The men had been operating a trotline for catfish in a 15-foot rig.
Bill Tittle, Hamilton County Emergency Management chief, echoed the sense of bewilderment.
"All of us, including the family, look around at the lake and ask, 'How does a fishing boat, on a bright day like this one, not see a big barge coming?' We just don't understand what happened," he said.
But officials who are investigating the accident said it's conceivable the men didn't hear the barges at all. Trotline fishing, which includes placing a long fishing line of baited hooks in the water and checking them daily, takes a lot of attention.
And since the tugboat, the only vessel with an engine, was pushing the barges from behind, most of the noise would have been far away from the fishermen, they said.
The tugboat was pushing a barge formation three barges wide and three deep, said Matt Majors, a wildlife and boating officer for the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency. Each barge is about 35 feet wide and 200 feet long, so the entire tugboat-barge combination was about 647 feet long, he said.
U.S. Coast Guard officials said that, at the front of the barges, which likely were moving about 5 miles per hour, it actually would have been pretty quiet.
"It's not as loud as you might think. It can sneak up on you," said Commander Josh McTaggart with the U.S. Coast Guard out of Nashville.
The Coast Guard is investigating the incident along with the TWRA because of the involvement of the tugboat, a commercial vessel.
No charges have been brought against the tugboat operator, Serodino, Inc., but the investigation is not complete, Commander McTaggart said Monday.
In a situation such as this, the tugboat and barges typically have the right-of-way because of the difficulty of maneuvering them, said Dan Hicks, spokesman for TWRA.
The tugboat was pushing the barges inside a channel marked with buoys and would have taken about three-quarters of a mile to stop, he said.
The investigation is trying to determine whether the tugboat operator even saw the fishing boat, officials said. Federal regulations state that even a boat with right-of-way still must take precautions to avoid a collision.
The tugboat was detained at the Chickamauga Dam, about 20 miles from the site of the actual incident near Possum Creek in Soddy-Daisy, Mr. Majors said.
The boats were released Monday after investigators finished collecting evidence. Mr. Hicks said they were looking for skin tissue, paint or glass fibers to try to piece together a more complete picture of what happened.
A man at Serodino's shipyard in Chattanooga, who refused to be identified, said he would not comment on the incident.
The sheer scope of the search area continues to frustrate rescue workers' efforts, as has the river's murkiness, Chief Tittle said. He said workers have combed the water's surface and have been using sonar technology and divers.
"You can see about three feet down and that's it," the chief said.
The river is three-quarters of a mile wide in areas and more than 35 feet deep. If the missing man was caught underneath a barge, he could have been dragged down the river, officials said.
Chief Tittle said workers may have more luck in the next few days, as bodies typically begin to float after three days of submersion.
"Many times, that's what it takes for us to find the body," he said.
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