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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.
 

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Hey night strikes thats good stuff . You may want to consider doing a tv guide kind of thing fo boating,fishing type topics as reminders. I know you guys do enouph already but its a thought
 

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Discussion Starter · #4 ·
Good Idea about the TV Guide of Fishing Shows.
But You Are Right it will take alot of work to
keep it updated...
As I come across something I will post it...
In Fact one of our Members (BobEver)does a
great job of keeping everyone posted on when
these kinds of shows are on the television..
You can find his posts in the TackleBox Forum...
In the MeanTime here is a link that gives you
show times and schedules of Fishing & Hunting
related shows....
Fishing Shows

[ 07-22-2004, 10:08 AM: Message edited by: NIGHTSTRIKES ]
 

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if you have direct tv, use scout, which is what i do, and put in "deep sea"

the beav

you''re right, it is a great show, sometimes the size fish you see on the hangs is outrageous
 

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Wow!! A blast from the past. Guess who was accounting officer of the company that owned the Thomas Hebert? Yours truly.

I heard on the radio on that Monday morning long ago that the CG had called off the search for missing members of a tug towing a coal barge. I knew that we had been loading a barge with 9,000 tons of coal in Newport News for delivery in Maine. I feared the worst and I was right. It had sunk on Sunday morning at about 4 AM. The two survivors, one being captain Willie Landers, had been sleeping, believe it or not. Their possessions rolling off the shelves woke them up. They ran to the pilot house only to discover no one there. Tug was on auto pilot, listing and laboring. Captain ordered the tug taken out of gear. It immediately went down by the stern, bow pointing directly in the sky. Unknown to them, water had already been downflooding the boat. The pressure of more water pouring in blew out the pilot house windows and they went out and found themselves in their skivies in 38 degree water. They had to swim out of the way as the pushing knee of the tug sinking in the water almost hit them. Luckily the life raft worked. Unfortunately for the cap Willie Landers, his brother was engineer on the boat and was sleeping . :( Unfortunately for the rest of the men, they didn't get out. :( It was terrible having the families of the men call and ask about the search, when we knew in 38 degree water there was no hope. :(

The Jamaica II was cod fishing and came across an anchored barge 35 miles at sea and called the coast guard at 9 AM. They hadn't heard anything about it. At 10 AM the Miss Mandy, a scalloper, spotted the life raft and picked up the survivors. The barge was anchored by the tug.

There was plenty of speculation about the cause, submarines etc. The US Navy assured everyone that they would never have a sub operating in 150 feet of water. The speculation was the sub snared the towing hawser in between the tug and barge, which had happened on the west coast before. Doubts increased when a submarine reportedly called port on the east coast with damage to it's sail which was never confirmed.

A more likely explanation emerged. Thomas Hebert had a long history of problems with the selenoids that power the auto pilot and steering system. They failed so often that the boat carried like four spares on a trip. When the selenoid failed, the rudder went to hard port or starboard, I forget which. Stupid design if you ask me. Anyway, with the rudder hard port say, the tug would have gradually made a 180 degree turn and directly opposed the barge. The 90 ton tug was no match for a 10,000 ton barge.

Recovering the bodies was paramount for the families. Mixed gas scuba divers recovered all but the last, that of the relief captain George Coram, 73 years old. He was wedged in a bad spot. The first hard hat diver was killed when his helmet separated from his suit. Chatterton then went and burned a hole in the boat and retrieved Capt Georges body. Capt George was cremated and his ashes taken on his crab boat in Lousisana and scattered.

Just finished a book, "Shadow Divers" which details the events surrounding the discovery and exploration of U-896. Chatterton, Packer, Gatto et al played pivotal roles in U-896 and the Thomas Hebert. Maybe I'll put a review of the book in the Tackle Box. You can be sure I'll be watching the history Channel in October.
 

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Discussion Starter · #7 ·
Phil,
Thanks for you insight on this..Very Interesting.
I'll look forward to reading you review
on the "Shadow Divers" Book..

I love This Stuff Also......


Thanks Again,,,
 

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Neat stuff, thanks NS and Twin D's.

I found some more;

GCMA REPORT #R-390
DATE: February 14, 2004

LOSS OF THE TUG THOMAS HEBERT
OFF NEW JERSEY COAST WITH LOSS OF LIFE
FAILS TO BRING NEEDED CHANGES

[Source: Edited from USCG Case #MC93003918]

### http://www.gulfcoastmariners.org/r-documents/r390.htm[/b] ###


Twin D's, I take it you worked for Loveland?

"The THOMAS HEBERT was towing LOVELAND 3403, a loaded 3,747 gross-ton coal barge, O/N 290771 built in Orange, Texas in 1963. Both vessels were owned and operated by S.C. Loveland of Pennsville, PA."

[ 07-23-2004, 11:38 PM: Message edited by: sunnydaze ]
 

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According to what I read, they wrote it off as solenoid failure and "Dereliction of duty by all on watch."

[ 07-23-2004, 11:32 PM: Message edited by: sunnydaze ]
 
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