Capsized tugboat may have been pushed over by barge: witness

The George H. Ledcor sank quickly after it keeled over, according to a tugboat captain who was on scene minutes after the capsize happened.

A tugboat captain who was on scene says the George H. Ledcor keeled over and sank quickly

The George H. Ledcor salvage site beside Sea Island on the Fraser River. (Canadian Coast Guard)

A tugboat captain who was on scene soon after the George H. Ledcor capsized in the Fraser River says the vessel keeled over so quickly, half of the four-member crew barely had time to get out of their bunks.

"Two of them came out [of the water] in their underwear because they had been sleeping," said Stewart Rawlings of Hodder Tugboat. 

According to Rawlings, the Ledcor had been pulling a gravel barge in tandem with a smaller assist tug that was pushing the load.

"[The tow line] was shortened right up. And [the Ledcor] got leaned over sideways and the assist tug was still pushing the barge as he was trying to get back to centre. And with the assist boat still pushing and the barge coming at eight to 10 knots, it kept pushing the boat over," said Rawlings.

The Ledcor capsized late at night on Aug. 13 near Deering Island in South Vancouver. All four crew were rescued, but an undetermined amount of diesel fuel has spilled from the wreck.

John Sehmer used to work for Seaspan and was one of the interested onlookers taking in the salvage effort Wednesday. He said most people don't realize how inherently unstable a tug can be.

"Once they tip over too far they fill up with water very quickly," he said.

"Tugboats are just big metal hulks that sink very easily once water gets into them because they have no freeboard," he added, referring to the distance between the waterline and upper deck.

Rawlings said the crew would have tried to detach the Ledcor from the barge but probably ran out of time.

"They do have an abort system. They can free the winch and run away from [the barge]. But everything happens so quickly, within seconds," he said. 

On Wednesday, Mark McElligott of Ledcor's marine division said the investigation into the capsize was ongoing.

The Ledcor was successfully raised at 10:30 a.m. PT Thursday following a salvage effort off Sea Island on the Richmond side of the river.

With files from Yvette Brend