Houston Tug Accident Kills One, Closes Channel

Four miles of the Houston Ship Channel will remain closed until the 56-foot tug J.R. Nichols, which sank Wednesday evening, can be removed. Five seafarers were aboard the tug when it sank. Four were rescued; one man lost his life.

U.S. Coast Guard Lt. Robert Cole said this morning that two or three tow vessels with fuel barges could not get underway due to the closure but that movements of larger vessels had not been affected.

T.J. Nelson, business manager for the Houston Pilots Association, also said that the closure has had a minimal impact on vessel movements because it affects only the uppermost reaches of the ship channel.

The 56-foot tug sank in the Houston Ship Channel near the Sims Bayou Turning Basin on Wednesday night, closing the waterway from the dock at Vopak in Galena Park to Sims Bayou, an upper stretch of the ship channel near the 610 bridge, Cole said.

Of the five seafarers aboard the tug at the time of the accident, four were rescued by workers at a refinery near the site, the Coast Guard said. One seafarer could not be found; his body was recovered on Thursday afternoon by TNT salvage divers. His name has not yet been released.

The Coast Guard said that it will not be able to determine what caused the sinking until after the tugboat has been raised. The tug had 10,000 gallons of diesel fuel aboard. At least 1,000 gallons of that were spilled in the ship channel.

According to Niels Lyngso, director of maritime affairs with the West Gulf Maritime Association, skimmers are on the scene and the spill has been boomed off and largely contained as of Friday morning. The Coast Guard said that an attempt to lift the tug will be made Friday. TNT Salvage will use the crane barge Curtis T to rig the tug for lifting and then the heavy-lift crane barge Big John for the lift itself. After the tug is secured on the barge the Coast Guard will survey for pollution prior to allowing vessel traffic in the area.