Sleepless crew, mystery woman: Tappan Zee Bridge fatal tugboat crash report

Matt Coyne
Rockland/Westchester Journal News

The tugboat Specialist was under-manned and its crew physically exhausted when it slammed into a Tappan Zee Bridge construction barge last year and sank, taking the lives of three crew members, a scathing report by the National Transportation Safety Board has concluded.

An NTSB investigator examines the wreckage of the tugboat Specialist Thursday, March 31, 2016.

More than a year after the sinking in the Hudson Riveron March 12, 2016, the report released this week detailed the saga of the New York Marine Towing-owned tug.

The tug was on a return trip from Albany, escorting a barge and, on the trip back, joined by two other tugboats. As the flotilla approached the Tappan Zee Bridge, it steered out of the bridge’s navigational channel. The Specialist struck a construction barge before the flotilla could bring it back.

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It sank, taking Paul Amon, Timothy Conklin and Harry Hernandez with it.

But beyond laying out the facts of the crash, the report includes several other damning details:

  • The Specialist initially brought the barge to Albany alone and had four crew members on board. When its owner, New York Marine Towing, grew concerned about its progress on the return trip, it dispatched a second tug, the Realist, to help. The Realist only had two crew members aboard and a female passenger. The third tug, the Trevor, was not owned by New York Marine Towing and joined later.
  • Hours before the crash, the captain of the Specialist left the boat to join the Realist’s crew, for “unknown reasons.” The Journal News/lohud had reported police were investigating the possibility that Realist Capt. James Morrison was with his girlfriend, and Specialist Capt. Paul Crowley was covering for him. Morrison has said no one was covering for anyone.
  • The crew members of both the Specialist and Realist had “likely not received more than 4-5 hours of uninterrupted sleep in at least three days leading up to the accident.” A family member of one of the Specialist crew members had said there were times when three or four of the crew members were sleeping at once. Texts from one crew member suggest he was awake for 24 hours.
  • In the aftermath of the accident, no crew members from either the Specialist or the Realist answered questions from investigators. The report says it was “due to possible pending charges stemming from an ongoing criminal investigation.”
  • The investigators requested, but did not receive specifications, of the Specialist.
  • According to the report, the owner of New York Marine Towing “left the country after the accident and claimed to no longer be a resident of the United States.”
  • Given the difficulty the Specialist was having on its return trip, the NTSB says “it is likely that the Specialist was underpowered for the weather conditions” before the crash.
  • The flotilla increased its speed in the approach to the Tappan Zee Bridge.
  • The most recent Coast Guard examination of the Specialist was in 2014. The Coast Guard found 18 deficiencies and issues with the Specialist’s searchlight and found that no safety orientations had been conducted.
  • The report says “there was no written tow plan, nor was one submitted to the Coast Guard.”

Whatever criminal investigation was cited in the report has apparently concluded. Westchester County police said they had conducted an investigation with the Coast Guard and reviewed their findings with the county District Attorney's Office.

"It was determined that no criminal conduct had occurred," said county police spokesman Kieran O'Leary. "Our findings were turned over to the federal agencies like the Coast Guard and NTSB and our investigation was concluded."

Since the crash, the families of Amon, Conklin and Hernandez have each filed suit against New York Marine Towing, barge owner Weeks Marine and Tappan Zee Constructors. The three lawsuits seek $100 million total.

They claim the tugboats were not seaworthy and that the construction barge was not aligned according to the Coast Guard's notice to mariners.

Amon's body was the first to be recovered, then Conlkin's. Hernandez's body was recovered and the Specialist raised from the water almost two weeks after the crash.

Twitter: @coynereports