The lone survivor from a fishing boat accident that killed two on the Tennessee River says he did not see the barges bearing down on them until they were only a football field away.
David "Christopher" Wilkey, 37, who was fishing on the river with his friend, Tim Spidle, and uncle, Richard Wilkey, told investigators that he and the other men were focused on hooking catfish to their trotline and did not notice the nine barges until they were 100 yards away.
The accident, which took place Saturday, killed Mr. Spidle, 45, of Elizabethton, Tenn., and Richard Wilkey, 52, of Soddy-Daisy.
The collision apparently took all parties by surprise because the barges' tugboat operator claims he never saw the fishing boat, according to John Hoesli, chief warrant officer with the U.S. Coast Guard, which is investigating the incident along with the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency.
The tugboat operator did not stop until authorities flagged him down.
"This is the main question we're asking both sides: Why did he not see you, and why did you not see him?" said Mr. Hoesli.
Investigators believe the Bearcat, a 647-foot-long commercial tug owned by Serodino Inc. of Chattanooga, was traveling 5 mph. If Mr. Wilkey's story is true, the three men had about 41 seconds to move to safer water, officials said.
But Mr. Wilkey also told investigators that the fishing boat's engine stalled, and he remembers one of his companions encouraging the men to "jump for it."
Mr. Wilkey's story matches that of other boaters who witnessed the collision and called 911 to report it, said Philip Earhart, Bradley County wildlife officer and lead investigator working the case with the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency.
What happened between the time the fishermen spotted the barge and when the barge struck is still unclear and could take months to determine, investigators said.
THE LOOKOUT QUESTION
For instance, investigators still don't know if either boat was being operated with a lookout. All boats - both commercial and recreational - are required to have a lookout at all times to assess surroundings through sight or hearing.
"That's supposed to be the only thing a lookout does," Mr. Hoesli said. "Nothing else."
According to Mr. Hoesli, the Bearcat had two operators and two deckhands. If a tugboat operator has a blind spot, he is obligated to employ either another individual or radar to watch the water he cannot see, Mr. Hoesli said.
Investigators still are trying to determine whether the operator used either measure, he said, and also are trying to determine when the operators switched shifts.
"If there were two (operators working), were they in conversation, paying attention?" Mr. Hoesli said. "Did one leave? Who exactly was driving the boat when the fishermen should have been spotted? We're still piecing a lot together."
In separate interviews with investigators, Mr. Wilkey and the tugboat operator said a warning horn never announced the commercial boat's approach.
Mr. Hoesli said his team covers administrative investigation, seeking to determine whether the accident was a result of misconduct, negligence, violation of law or regulation or incompetence.
The different classifications determine the consequences and help the Coast Guard know if major changes in boating laws need to be made, he said.
"Do we need to make recommendations to Congress to make new laws, make them more stringent, or clarify them? These are things we will be looking at over the next few months," said Mr. Hoesli. "We have to ask what should have prevented this from happening."
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