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September 23, 2019Cart


by Westchester County Business Journal

Witness to Tappan Zee tragedy sues tugboat companies for his anguish

The Specialist being salvaged. Photo supplied by the Coast Guard via the National Transportation Safety Board.

A construction foreman who witnessed the deaths of three seamen at the Tappan Zee Bridge is suing two tugboat companies for post-traumatic stress that he says has made him unable to work since the 2016 accident.

Helder J. Cordeiro, Ossining, sued New York Marine Towing Inc., Montauk, and Weeks Marine Inc., Cranford, New Jersey, March 6 in Westchester Supreme Court.

The “distress, horror, shock and terror” of watching the crew drown, the complaint states, have caused him “ongoing anxiety, stress and loss of enjoyment of life.”

The accident happened March 12, 2016 at the Tappan Zee Bridge, where construction crews were building the Mario Cuomo Bridge.

Three tugboats – the Specialist and the Realist, owned by New York Marine, and the Trevor, owned by Weeks Marine – were towing a massive crane barge, the Weeks 533, south to Staten Island.

Around 5 a.m., as the flotilla approached the bridge it angled out of the channel, according to a National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) report. The Specialist crashed into the Hank Hummel, a construction barge anchored at the work site.

The Specialist sank and three crew members drowned.

Cordeiro was working as a foreman for Tappan Zee Constructors LLC, the contractor for the new bridge. In his telling of the tragedy, he was standing on a concrete footing a few feet away from the Hank Hummel. He saw the flotilla coming toward him rapidly and striking the barge within seconds.

Cordeiro says he and his co-workers tried to rescue the captain and crew, and for 15 minutes “watched helplessly as horrific and disturbing events occurred right in front of them.”

Cordeiro and his co-workers saw the Specialist’s captain escape, the complaint states, re-enter the tugboat in an attempt to save trapped crewmembers, resurface “alive, flailing and shouting for help,” then drown.

Cordeiro charges the tugboat companies with negligence, citing NTSB findings. He is demanding unspecified damages, to be determined at trial.

Attorneys for New York Marine and Weeks Marine did not respond to email messages requesting comment.

The NTSB account of the accident differs from Cordeiro’s on some details.

The captain of the Specialist, Paul Crowley, survived. The crewmembers who perished, according to court records, were Paul Amon, 62, Bayville, New Jersey, Timothy S. Conklin, 29, Westbury, Nassau County, and Harry Hernandez, 56, Paterson, New Jersey.

The Weeks 533 was being towed down the Hudson River, from Albany to Staten Island. The barge, at nearly 300 feet, and the crane weighing 600 tons with a boom extending 210 feet, was the largest floating, revolving heavy lift crane barge on the East Coast. Its massive size, the NTSB reported, obstructed visibility even from the upper wheelhouse of the Specialist.

The Specialist had struggled against bad weather and currents, the NTSB noted, days before the accident. On March 11, the Realist was dispatched to assist. Later that day, the Trevor arrived and joined the flotilla.

A notice to mariners described conditions at the bridge construction site, between Tarrytown and Nyack. More than a hundred pieces of floating equipment and support vessels were moored or anchored around the construction site. Side channels were closed to traffic, leaving only the 600-foot-wide center channel.

“Mariners are strongly advised to stay clear of all construction equipment and support vessels by 1,000 feet or more when transiting the area,” the notice stated. “Mariners are advised to … use extreme caution.”

The entire crew had been awake the night before the accident because of weather conditions, according to the NTSB, and there were times during the trip when three out of the four crewmembers were sleeping, leaving only one person in the wheelhouse.

Around 1 a.m. March 12, the captain of the Specialist “left his vessel for unknown reasons, crossed the deck of the barge and assumed the helm of the Realist,” the NTSB reported, leaving the mate to navigate the Specialist.

The flotilla began increasing speed, from 6.5 knots at 4 a.m. to 8 knots at 5 a.m. As the vessels approached the bridge, the mate of the Specialist radioed the other tugboats that there was not enough clearance between the tow and the Hank Hummel.

“It’s looking tight, go left,” he radioed, then, “go hard left.”

The right side of the Specialist struck a corner of the Hank Hummel. The mate jumped onto the construction barge. But as the current began pushing the tugboat under water, he returned and tried to help a crewmember who was trapped inside and calling for help.

The Specialist sank rapidly, taking the mate and two crewmembers with it. Construction workers then saw the mate being swept away by the current. They threw life rings, the NTSB report states, but he was unresponsive.

The NTSB reported that the crews of the Specialist and the Realist “had likely not received more than 4 to 5 hours of uninterrupted sleep in at least three days leading up to the accident.” They were dealing with adverse weather, strong currents and restricted visibility, “compounding the effects of fatigue.”

The Specialist was underpowered for the weather conditions, the NTSB said, and there was no evidence that the crews of the three tugs had held a coordination meeting.

The probable cause of the accident, the NTSB determined, was “inadequate manning, resulting in fatigued crewmembers navigating three tugboats with obstructed visibility due to the size of the crane on the barge they were towing.”