Mississippi Miracle

How river pilot Sean Tittle stopped a 12,000-ton vessel and saved a family of three

By Jeff Moag

Scott Erickson will be the first to tell you the accident was his fault. 

He thought he had plenty of room to cross in front of the barge, almost half a mile by his reckoning. But Erickson didn’t expect to run out of fuel in the middle of America’s biggest inland shipping lane, and he surely didn’t expect the distance to close so quickly.

The towboat Bill Stegbauer was pushing nine barges upriver at about four knots, and the current was sweeping Erickson and his family downstream at about six. In case you haven’t solved a fifth-grade story problem lately, that’s less than three minutes to impact. 

In the Stegbauer’s wheelhouse, river pilot Sean Tittle was focused on guiding 12,000 tons of steel and cargo through one of the tightest bends on the Upper Mississippi, a 90-degree right-hander in Red Wing, Minnesota. It’s a narrow stretch of river, hemmed in by a marina on the right-hand bank and a grain terminal on the left. Complicating matters, it was a Saturday in July and the river was full of pleasure craft. 

A towboat pushes nine barges upstream on the Mississippi, past a navigation buoy marking the shipping channel. Photo: Kira Volkov/Dreamstime

Tittle had already reduced speed and stationed lookouts on the head of his tow when he spotted the 18-foot skiff with the brightly colored bimini top. On board were Scott Erickson, his wife Diana, and their adult son John. 

Almost as soon as Tittle saw them they were out of sight again, hidden by the barges arrayed 600 feet in front of him. He called down to his lookout: “I see a boat. Are they moving?”

They weren’t. 

Tittle already had kicked the Stegbauer’s engines out of gear—the first step in bringing some 24 million pounds to a halt as quickly as possible, without brakes. The process, called a crash stop, is both frenetic and agonizingly slow. Tittle had to wait about 25 seconds before he could safely put the Stegbauer into reverse, and another few seconds to run the diesels up to full astern. 

On the head, deckhand Erskine “Trey” Williams III, told Tittle the stalled boat was left of the tow’s centerline. Tittle immediately threw his flanking rudders hard to port, a maneuver calculated to pivot the head to starboard and run it aground. “If I spread the tow all over the bank, that’s better than a loss of life,” he says.

“Trey was counting me down, you know, it was 75 foot and then it was 50 foot, then 40. His numbers started slowing but I knew I was going to hit them.” 

Maybe, if the rudders bit in time, it would be a glancing blow. 

A standard Mississippi river barge is 200 feet long and 35 feet wide, and a typical tow includes as many as 15 barges. Give them plenty of space to maneuver. Photo: Agcultures.com

As the barge bore down on their aluminum skiff, the Ericksons first tried to restart the motor. They plugged the spare fuel tank into the outboard, squeezed the bulb to prime it, and cranked the motor, again and again. It coughed, but didn’t catch. Then they were out of time. 

“My son, who’s a good swimmer, he jumped out of the boat and swam clear. My wife left the boat quite a bit after he did, and that made it a lot worse for her,” Erickson says. 

The impact was lighter than expected. “It’s like we caught them on that empty barge,” Tittle recalls. “It just barely bent that little bimini top.” 

Scott Erickson clambered from the skiff onto the tow. Diana Erickson disappeared under it. 

Tittle kept the flanking rudders pinned to port and the diesels roaring full astern, using the Stegbauers’ 4,200 horsepower to pivot the barges away from the Ericksons’ boat. The idea was to shake the little skiff off the head of his tow before the river pushed it under like a shoelace caught in an escalator. Tittle didn’t know it at the time, but he was also pulling the barges from atop Diana Erickson.

The river’s swift current had swept her under the left side of the tow. She tumbled eight feet deep, skipping off the barge’s steel bottom as she traveled underwater for some 200 feet. Then, remarkably, she popped up in the narrow gap between the left front barge and the one behind it. Deckhands threw her a flotation device—she wasn’t wearing a life jacket—and then lowered a ladder. Diana Erickson grabbed on to it for dear life. Then Scott Erickson came hustling across the barges and leapt into the river, determined to help his wife. He wasn’t wearing a life jacket either. 

Sgt. Jordan Winberg and Deputy Thomas Blue arrived moments later in the Goodhue County Sheriff Department’s Everglades boat. Their dispatcher had received five 911 calls in as many minutes, as nearby boaters watched the Stegbauer bear down on the little skiff, it’s horn blasting five short, the universal signal for danger.

Winberg and Blue came screaming upstream, and fetched up on the tow’s port side. Tittle by now had halted the tow and was holding it steady against the current. As he raced to rescue the two people in the water, Winberg had a quiet moment of appreciation for the river pilot’s skill. Then he was consumed with the task of getting the Ericksons out of the water.

A deckhand jumped from the tow onto the low-slung ‘glades boat, with a line in hand. He and Blue then used the rope to ease the boat back to the ladder. Winberg, kneeling on the swim platform, slipped his right shoulder under Diana Erickson’s arm and heaved her aboard. 

“Once we got close enough, I just scooped her out, and then I scooped the husband out,” Winberg says. Diana Erickson was shaken and had “swallowed a lot of Mississippi River water,” but was not seriously hurt. A boater had plucked John Erickson from the river minutes earlier. All three family members were safe and accounted for.

The accident happened on this bend in Red Wing, Minnesota. Photo: Geoffrey Kuchera/Dreamstime

Tittle is still amazed he was able to stop in time. “Whenever I think about that day I thank God I just knocked the boat out of gear when I did,” he says. “We always wonder in situations like that if we’re going to freeze up or react, and I was blessed to react.”

A lot went into Tittle’s lifesaving actions. Nineteen years on river boats, for one, but also a great deal of training. Tittle credits his employer, the Southern Towing Company, with ensuring its captains and crews are prepared for such emergencies. Like airline pilots, riverboat pilots train on high-tech simulators. Still, Tittle says, nothing prepares a towboater for the real thing. And of all the hazards on America’s inland waterways, unwary pleasure boats are the most disconcerting.

“People up there are crazy, man. They will pull their kids in an inner tube right in front of you,” Tittle says. If he hadn’t kicked the Stegbauer out of gear when he did—if he hadn’t pivoted his tow and Diana Erickson hadn’t come up from under that barge—Tittle isn’t sure how he could have lived with himself afterward, even though the accident was no fault of his own.

It’s a sobering thought for recreational boaters who share waterways with commercial traffic. You wouldn’t turn circles on the interstate on a moped, yet boaters routinely fish, ski and sail on waterways frequented by tow vessels like the Stegbauer, each of which can push as much freight as 870 tractor trailers. 

The problem is that many recreational boaters don’t know how to interact with commercial vessels, Winberg says. “Some boaters don’t know how to pass. They don’t know what to do to get out of the way.” In 10 years with Goodhue County’s water patrol, he’s heard it all. “We get complaints from people saying, ‘A tow boat almost ran us over when we were fishing.’ Then we ask where they were fishing, and they say, ‘Right in the middle of the channel.’”

The key to collision avoidance is a set of maritime traffic rules known as the Rules of the Road. Tittle says that if he could tell recreational boaters just one thing, it’s this: “Please educate yourself on the Rules of the Road. It’s one code that we all follow—one set of rules. You can get the U.S. Coast Guard app on your phone, and they’re right there,” he says. 

Winberg notes that in Minnesota, boaters 18 and older are not required to complete a boating safety course. The same is true in many other states, but it’s worth remembering that the laws of physics have jurisdiction everywhere. Boaters sometimes talk about the Rule of Gross Tonnage, which is another way of saying that large vessels should always be given plenty of leeway because they can’t stop or turn quickly. It’s that simple.

Scott Erickson will be the first to tell you that. 

“It wasn’t that I had no respect for those barges, and it wasn’t that I had no respect for the Mississippi River,” he says. “It’s that I was new to boating and just didn’t have the awareness of that commercial traffic.”

Towboats on America’s inland waterways generate several thousand horsepower and can take nearly a minute to switch from forward to reverse. They are not equipped with brakes. Photo: William Alden III/Creative Commons

Recreational boaters must be aware of many things to safely operate their craft, particularly on waterways shared by commercial traffic. Many of these things can be learned while obtaining a nationally-approved boating safety education certificate. Always ensure your vessel is properly equipped, and that you and all your passengers wear a Coast Guard approved life jacket. Finally, it should go without saying that if your primary tank is running low, you should switch to your backup before crossing an active shipping lane—even if it looks like you have plenty of room. Because as Scott Erickson will tell you, commercial vessels are big, but they’re not slow.

“Between me and you, I’m going on a lake from now on,” he says. “I’m going where there’s no current and no barges.”

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