Upcoming program probes mystery of 1993 tugboat sinking
By ERIC TUCKER Staff Writer, (609) 978-2012
Press of Atlantic City
John Chatterton was hired in the spring of 1993 to recover a dead body from a sunken ship, an experience he remembers to this day as a "very grisly task" - even for a former combat medic in Vietnam.
Four bodies had already been pulled from the Thomas Hebert, a tugboat that went down roughly 35 miles east of Barnegat Light in March 1993. Chatterton, a commercial diver, was hired about seven weeks after the accident to retrieve the body of a fifth victim stuck in a "practically inaccessible" region of the boat.
"The deal was we had to get the last guy out - period," Chatterton said. "Whatever it took."
Armed with a hard hat and a hose, Chatterton spent exactly 12 minutes inside the sunken ship, locating and retrieving the body of the late Capt. George Coram.
"This is like a very grisly task," Chatterton recalled Tuesday. "But the thing is, you also have a family there waiting. You put a tremendous amount of pressure on yourself to deliver, to produce, because you see how much it means to these people."
Chatterton, 52, is no stranger to diving adventures. In the early 1990s, he helped discover a sunken German U-boat off the New Jersey shore. His excursions are the focus of a new, critically praised book, Shadow Divers.
He is better known today as the host of "Deep Sea Detectives," a weekly television series on the History Channel that plans to devote an episode in late October to the sinking of the Thomas Hebert.
The tugboat, towing a coal-laden barge, left Newport News, Va., en route to Portland, Maine, just days before sinking near the New Jersey shore early on March 7, 1993.
Five of the seven men aboard the vessel were killed. Two other crewmen, one of whom was interviewed for the documentary, survived and escaped from the wreckage in a life raft.
More than a decade later, there are still conflicting theories about what caused the Thomas Hebert to sink, according to Chatterton and others with knowledge of the tugboat.
"A lot of mysteries shrouded the whole sinking," said Steve Gatto, 43, of Sicklerville, who headed up diving operations at the wreck site with another man, Tom Packer.
"There was a lot of accusations and a lot of things being said," added Gatto, who is writing a book about the Thomas Hebert that he plans to title "Tugboat Down: The Controversial Sinking of the Thomas Hebert."
One theory advanced by the U.S. Coast Guard is that the tugboat was tripped by its own tow cable, pulled over on its side and subsequently sank. But Gatto and Chatterton said there was evidence suggesting that the tow cable was actually caught by a passing submarine before sinking.
"That's all part of the mystery is trying to figure that out," said Dana Rae Warren, an independent writer and producer working for the Maine-based Lone Wolf Production Company, which produces the weekly History Channel series in conjunction with Liquid Pictures. "That's the 'Deep Sea Detectives' part of it."
As the tugboat began to go down, sometime around 3 or 4 a.m. that morning, the two surviving crewmembers - both of whom were sleeping - were either washed or blown out of the vessel into the frigid waters, Gatto said.
The duo made their way onto a life raft, which was still attached to the tugboat by a 100-foot line, Gatto said.
The line later broke free of the tugboat, and the crewmembers - identified as William Landers, the captain, and Brett Cooper, the mate - shot a flare off in hopes of attracting attention.
Sparks from the flare burned a hole in the canopy, causing it to deflate and form a functional blanket around the two survivors. Later that morning, a charter fishing boat, Miss Mandy, picked up Landers and Cooper and notified the Coast Guard, Gatto said.
In working on the Thomas Hebert episode, a production crew has conducted interviews and has spent time poring over records, documents and other materials related to the accident, Warren said.
"All the people involved are just wonderful folks, and you know, it's a story that deserves more attention," Warren said.
The documentary will air Monday, Oct. 25, on the History Channel.