published Thursday, February 24th, 2011

Drugs linked to boaters

by Chris Carroll
  • photo
    Staff Photo by John Rawlston/Chattanooga Times Free Press The towboat Bearcat pushes a group of barges to the lock at the Chickamauga Dam on Wednesday.

Toxicology reports show that all three men aboard a fishing boat struck by a barge on the Tennessee River were under the influence of alcohol, marijuana or both.

The lone survivor of the June collision has said he didn't see or hear a 647-foot tugboat-barge combination until it was a football field away, which didn't give them enough time to get out of the way.

Soddy-Daisy native Richard Wilkey, 52, and Elizabethton, Tenn., resident Tim Spidle, 45, died June 19 after the tugboat Bearcat, owned by Chattanooga-based Serodino Inc., hit the fishing boat.

Richard Wilkey's nephew, David "Chris" Wilkey, was operating the fishing boat and survived.

Chris Wilkey, 37, had a "fairly average" amount of THC -- marijuana's key ingredient -- in his system, according to Tennessee Bureau of Investigation spokeswoman Kristin Helm.

"I might have smoked a joint the night before, but I hadn't done nothing that day," Wilkey said Wednesday. "I was not impaired one bit."

A Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency report characterizes Chris Wilkey as under the influence of drugs at the time of the crash, but authorities allowed him to drive home after he was treated for minor injuries.

Wilkey said he drank only Pepsi that day.

TWRA's main investigator on the case, Phillip Earhart, could not be reached for comment Wednesday.

"We can't tell exactly when someone was impaired based on the level from a blood sample, but the presence of the chemical does indicate marijuana use," said TBI's Helm, adding that she was speaking about positive THC results in general.

Richard Wilkey had no THC in his system, but his blood-alcohol content was 0.269 -- more than three times the 0.08 legal limit.

Spidle had a slightly higher THC level than Chris Wilkey and a 0.20 blood-alcohol level, the reports show.

"I really can't say how many beers they had," Wilkey said. "We'd just gotten on the water."

The toxicology reports, based on documents obtained from the TWRA and TBI, surfaced two weeks after a Hamilton County grand jury indicted tugboat operator Warren Luetke on two counts of criminally negligent homicide in connection with the deaths.

Luetke, who didn't stop the rig until authorities flagged him down, also faces charges of reckless operation of a boat and failure to render assistance.

"They hit us and kept on going," Chris Wilkey said. "There was no hesitation as they moved down the river."

The report states Luetke was not under the influence of alcohol when the collision occurred.

Luetke declined to speak on the record Wednesday. According to authorities, he still has a license to operate commercial liners.

Last December, Serodino Inc. filed federal court papers blaming the fishermen for causing their own deaths. The filing is designed to limit civil damages in the event of a lawsuit.

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

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Echo said...

The toxicology report "surfaced"?

Only the BAC of the captain of each vessel is relevant, not that of their dad, their mom, or their favorite reggae musician.

Sleazy article. How much money did the law firm representing Serodino Inc. pay you to publish it?

February 24, 2011 at 7:21 a.m.
jpo3136 said...

It seems to me that smaller, weaker vessels should have the right of way. They may not even be required to move at all. The tugboat is not a warship; people are not required to stay away or face the pain of death. It cannot force other people in the area to do anything. On the contrary, the ideas regulating the conduct of those vessels are based on the opposite concept, that of providing service to other people. Large vessel operators cannot force other free people to do anything, including get out of the way. Smaller vessels moving away from these barges is more of a practical courtesy, not a requirement forced upon or expected of those small boat operators.

What if that smaller vessel had been totally disabled? What then? Are large ships and barges not required to yield?

Yielding, as an idea, means we give the advantage and the chance to go to another. Yet, when many of us drive, we take the attitude, "Me first." Yielding right of way is not about getting your chance to go. It is about giving the chance to go to someone else. I suspect that wasn't done here.

Failing to yield, failing to give the boaters in the smaller vessel the chance to go or not go under their own power, that seems to be the main idea in these accidents.

No one is required to rush out of the way of a big vessel, sober or not. No one is required to move and maintain a certain speed at all. It is the larger craft who has our permission, a license from us, to operate. That permission does not include recklessly driving blind and fast and powerful down the river, killing people several times over.

We'll see the details in court, but what seems to be most relevant to me, having read another story on this some time ago, is that the larger vessel seems to have failed to yield.

Yield. Give way. Do not run over people out of self-importance.

February 24, 2011 at 8:58 a.m.
alohaboy said...

jpo, "the smaller, weaker vessels should have the right of way"? Sorry, that's not the rules of the sea. Have you ever seen how much time it takes to turn or stop a large ship? That's like stopping a loaded train when a car in on the crossing. No way can it be done. The captian is not at fault and I can't see how they went after him unless he was drunk or on illegal drugs at the time.

February 24, 2011 at 10:04 a.m.
MasterChefLen said...

Nothing like conspiracy theory nuts making comments. If the people were impaired above the legal limit of the law, they should hold some responsibility. The same stupid comment like that of "Echo" would try to say that impaired people driving are not responsible for Drunk Driving accidents. Echo, you are an idiot!

February 24, 2011 at 10:41 a.m.
dao1980 said...

I thought you were supposed to be drunk and stoned to catch the big fish. You would spook it, if you weren't... right?

And at what speed was this extremely large vessel moving?

Ha! I have known folks that could do backflips wakeboarding after a case of beer and a day of smoking doobies.

These fellas are no longer with us as a result of simple lack of ability to survive.

Ya know, a tree will grow right through you if you don't get out of its way.

February 24, 2011 at 10:58 a.m.
revmike11 said...

Well, Here we go! Of course the THC content that was present in the young mans system caused the accident, not the boat that was being piloted by someone who didn't have anything in their system. I wonder if any of these idiots have ever tried MJ! I bet it there were truthful (which I doubt they would be!) I bet they would find that this accident was not caused by someone who smoked it. Especially the night before. Of course I used it for years and I still insist that it doesn't cause the impairment that most people say it does! But what do I know? I was a habitual user for years and years. I never had an accident or became impaired in my work or driving. I wonder how much the Big shots paid to have this published this way!!!

February 24, 2011 at 11:11 a.m.
holdout said...

The towboat had the right of way. The large ship does not have to yield and in fact trying to maneuver around another vessel in a river channel is almost certain to cause grounding at the least and possibly lost barges that will then run over everything in their path. Stopping a towboat and barges in a few hundred yards in physically impossible. If you are going to operate a vessel you need to at least be aware of the rules of the road. Going on the water drunk is begging for disaster anyway. The river is big, powerful, and unforgiving. The shipping channels are clearly marked and sitting in them for any reason defies sanity.

February 24, 2011 at 1:34 p.m.
acerigger said...

Navigational law gives the barges the "right-of-way." However it also requires barge operators to maintain a constant look-out for other boaters or hazards. This rule was not being followed at the time of the collision most likely due to a personnel shortage.(owner's too cheap to pay that "extra" man to be look-out)

February 24, 2011 at 3:35 p.m.
SeaSmokie59er said...

Down-bound vessel regardless of gross tonnage always has the right-of-way. - International Rules of the Road Manual (Rule 9 Narrow Channel)

February 24, 2011 at 3:46 p.m.
jpo3136 said...

Vessels are also required to maintain a lookout and post a guard. That large barge cannot force or require anyone else to get out of his way. These rules are based on yielding, not forcing someone else to do something.

The captain of a vessel has no way of knowing what another can or cannot do. It is unreasonable to think that he is capable of controlling anything besides his own vessel.

Even if he thought he was right, he is still responsible for piloting his own vessel. That includes slowing down, and turning right to avoid collisions. You cannot just run other people over because your vessel is larger.

February 24, 2011 at 5:19 p.m.
jpo3136 said...

I have been up on Snooper's Rock and seen barges creep through the river very slowly, sighting and lighting up the shore with their lamps at night. Pilots know how to go carefully. That's why they're "piloting" the vessel.

It doesn't matter what the conditions are or what the hazard is; that pilot has to make some kind of reasonable effort to see and prepare for the hazards in front of him. That includes a fishing boat standing still.

What's more, if those boaters were inebriated, then all the more that their craft was disabled. The drunker or more stoned we think they were; then the more they were victimized.

Was there any effort at all made by the barge to avoid collision? I suspect we'll find out that this was another day of piloting up the same waterway and not paying attention.

No, I am not a sailor, but I spent enough time in New Orleans to know that it's common for experienced sailors with top notch navigation equipment to mindlessly crash into the Lake Ponchetrain Bridge. At 25 miles long, everyone should know it's there. It gets hit regularly.

Almost always by some worn-out or drunk person who was going the same way he always goes, but one time not paying attention.

The more powerful those vessels are, the more those pilots have on them. This does not mean that the killed victims are at fault. And, it doubly does not mean that their intoxication has anything to do with it.

What's what here is that the barge pilot is expected to control his vessel. No exceptions. We just cannot accept this concept that it is okay for someone with a large watercraft to kill others in collisions repeatedly. The laws of commerce must side with humanity, for it is civilization that they support.

February 24, 2011 at 5:34 p.m.
jpo3136 said...

And even if the police, TWRA, messed up by letting the survivor drive home, that didn't cause those deaths on the water, either. Trying to say something about the policing after the accident doesn't tell us whether or not this riverboat pilot is guilty of negligent homicide.

What is the TBI doing discussing evidence outside of trial? How is that in the state's best interest? Shouldn't the TBI's procedures be protecting the interests of all of the people of our state? That would include the victims and their survivors. Again, that spectacle does not tell us whether or not that barge pilot is guilty.

We're not told what the smaller boat was doing. Won't that be significant to right of way?

How would whether or not a passenger was drunk be a part of whether or not it's right to get run over by a river barge?

We're not told, by any of the statements above, what was going on in a vessel by the people who had the opportunity to know.

Also, what about inland maritime laws? One of y'all quoted international maritime rules. When I looked it up to check up on it, I came across this one:

That rulebook outlines one set of conditions for "International" and another set for "Inland." Tennessee seems to be inland. What do the inland rules have to say about this? Rule 2 goes on and on about doing whatever is necessary to avoid collision. Does that not apply?

Even though this may be two drunk and one stoned Bubba in a bass boat, they deserve a defense. That includes those who are already dead. These guys deserve a good lawyer. We should not give up on our people just because someone wants to say something negative about them after they died. That's not right and it's not fair.

I'm going to side with the Bubbas in the bass boat, solely because they got run over and now everyone is saying something bad about them. No go. They deserve a fair defense.

February 24, 2011 at 7:53 p.m.
SeaSmokie59er said...

jpo- Try Rule 9 INLAND

(ii) Notwithstanding paragraph (a)(i) and Rule 14(a), a power-driven vessel operating in narrow channels or fairways on the Great Lakes, Western Rivers, or waters specified by the Secretary, and proceeding downbound with a following current shall have the right-of-way over an upbound vessel, shall propose the manner and place of passage, and shall initiate the maneuvering signals prescribed by Rule 34 (a)(i), as appropriate. The vessel proceeding upbound against the current shall hold as necessary to permit safe passing.

The parts of this rule that apply are that it happened in "western waters", the tug was "proceeding with the current" and that the other vessel should "permit a safe passage".

I'm just going off second hand knowledge so we should reply on the offical invetigation results.

February 24, 2011 at 10:23 p.m.
Amos_Ives_Root said...

Between this, and the problems building the new lock, the only rational thing to do is BAN ALL GASOLINE POWERED VEHICLES on the section of the Tennessee river from Nickajack Dam to Chickamauga Dam.

If things like this can happen on Chickamauga Lake its simply insane letting gas powered speed boats into the river gorge.

February 24, 2011 at 11:47 p.m.
grantjacobus said...
What a good deal of you folks are failing to mention or maybe simply just do not realize is the fact that the motor of the boat of the men that were killed stopped working. I know these men very well in fact one of men that was killed was my older brother. There are a couple of facts that really are important to this incident. One being the motor of the fishing boat. Second the Tug kept on going "down bound" as you say. The authorities had to get the attention of the crew and the Captain of the vessel before they ever stopped after killing two men. This fact would lead a logical person to think that the lookout that by law is required was not posted. Weather or not the tug would have been able to avoid the fishing boat is really unimportant at this point because two men are dead. One of whom is my brother who I miss greatly. He was not a druggie or a drunk. He was not driving the boat, and most of all he did not deserve to die that day. So when the captain kills yet another person maybe then someone will stop and think about revoking his license so he will be unable to kill anyone else. And for all of you who fish that river, make dam sure your boat motor is in tip top shape because you may find yourself crossing the river and in the cross hairs of a tug.
August 7, 2012 at 10:27 p.m.
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