Intracoastal Waterway Accident Challenges Florida Rescuers

St. Johns County, FL, Fire Rescue (SJCFR) was presented with challenges it never faced before. An overloaded 22-foot Crownline Bowrider with 14 people on board rammed a moored, unoccupied tugboat on the Intracoastal Waterway about one mile north of the Palm Valley Bridge, approximately 25 miles southeast of Jacksonville.

The SJCFR is a full-service fire-rescue department providing coverage to 608 square miles, including 42 miles of coastline and 210 miles of inland waterways. Automatic mutual aid agreements are provided for the City of St. Augustine and Jacksonville Beach. The department's organizational structure is divided into functional sections with well-defined areas of responsibility. These sections are identified as: Operations, Logistics, Support Services, and Training and Fire Prevention. The Operations section is further divided into three battalions: North, South and Special Operations. The Special Operations Battalion includes Hazmat, Technical Rescue and Marine Operations.

The department has 15 stations comprised of 11 advanced life support (ALS) rescue transports, nine ALS engines, four basic life support (BLS) engines, two heavy rescue squads and two aerial trucks. ALS rescue transports are manned with two paramedics each. The ALS engines, BLS engines and heavy rescue squads each have a minimum of three staffed personnel. The aerial apparatus are staffed with two personnel.

The Marine Rescue Division provides training to marine rescue and fire-rescue personnel. All fire-rescue personnel receive training in basic water awareness during department orientation and most have also received training with respect to marine rescue. Fire-rescue personnel assigned to stations along the coastline are now receiving marine-rescue technician training in accordance with National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 1670. In the past, fire-rescue has responded to various types of water emergencies including distressed swimmers, private airplane crashes, vessel fires and overturned vessels.

All fire-rescue personnel receive awareness-level training in confined space rescue, water rescue, trench rescue, aerial operations, high- and low-angle rescue, and hazardous materials. Most personnel continue these disciplines to include the operations and technician levels. Two centrally located stations within the county specialize in urban search and rescue (USAR)/technical rescue and hazardous materials.

Deadly Impact

A 22-foot Crownline Bowrider has a fuel capacity of 50 gallons and the maximum rated engine is 425 hp. The 12-person maximum capacity is rated at 1,875 pounds (156 pounds per person).

In the early evening hours of April 12, 2009, the boat and fire-rescue service along with such disparate entities as the St. Johns County Sheriff's Office, U.S. Coast Guard, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) and National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) fused in an incident neither survivors nor rescuers are likely ever to forget.

At 7:15 P.M., the overcrowded boat was returning in a northerly direction to its Beach Marine launch point at Jacksonville Beach when it rammed the starboard side of a moored 25-foot tugboat tied up to a dock under construction. The tug, registered to F&A Enterprises in St. Augustine, was unoccupied. The Crownline, estimated by witnesses to be going more than 30 mph, penetrated the hull of the tug and the wheelhouse and engine. The crash killed five people and sent nine to local hospitals. Five of the injured were in critical condition; four were stable. SJCFR reported that "the deceased were found in the boat seating area along with the other passengers. It appeared the deceased died on impact, sustaining injuries consistent with physical trauma comparable to a vehicle accident without safety restraints."

A rather complicated law of physics involving mass, acceleration, change in velocity and pound miles per second determines the force an object exerts at a specific time of impact. For example, a 10,000-pound object traveling at 40 mph that hits a brick wall and comes to a complete halt in 0.1 second exerts an impact force of 182,000 pounds. The boat, weighing approximately 7,600 pounds, with a lower rate of travel and coming to a halt in about one second would have a slightly lower impact force.

The section of waterway where the incident occurred presented no navigational difficulties. "The incident location is part of the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway," explained Jeremy Robshaw, SJCFR public education/information officer. "In the particular area of the accident, the waterway is approximately 125 feet wide and 12 feet deep. At the time of the accident, it was dusk with clear visibility at dead low tide. The current was not a factor at the time of the accident."

U.S. Coast Guard spokesman Bobby Nash said the area does not have a speed limit, though authorities can stop speeding boats from driving recklessly. It is also not part of a manatee zone where boats are required to slow as to not leave a wake. A witness said the boat had been stopped several times by police concerned about seeing so many people aboard and whether they had sufficient life jackets.

"The initial 911 call was received by SJCFR Communications at approximately 7:21 P.M.," said Robshaw. "Following the arrival of the first apparatus on the scene at approximately 7:27 P.M., five additional ALS rescue apparatus, three from SJCFR and two from the Jacksonville Fire Rescue Department, were requested. Following the first on-scene report from Rescue 1, air transport units from Shands Hospital Trauma 1 (Jacksonville), Baptist Medical Center Life Flight (Jacksonville) and Shands Hospital Shands Care (Gainesville) were immediately dispatched. In addition, the St. Johns County Sheriff's Office and the FWC were dispatched to the scene. Following the initial incident, the Coast Guard and NTSB responded to assist in the investigation process." The FWC subsequently took jurisdiction of the accident scene.

"Station 1 responded with two paramedics and an ALS rescue transport, Rescue 1. Station 10 responded with a BLS engine and four personnel, Engine 10. One additional ALS rescue transport, Rescue 17, with two paramedics and a battalion chief, Battalion 1, were included in the initial call. Lieutenant Dan Joubert of Rescue 1 initially established command as per departmental policy. As the incident escalated, command was eventually transferred to Lieutenant Rick Caro of Engine 10," said Robshaw.

Tactical Options

"Upon arrival on scene, Rescue 1 was faced with a limited-access, long driveway in front of a residence under construction," said Robshaw. "They found an 80-foot unfinished dock with only the framing in place. Personnel mitigated this area much like walking on rafters in an attic, only approximately 20 feet above water. The accident scene could not be seen until after crossing the dock. The 25-foot tugboat was moored at the far end of the dock. Upon reaching the accident, personnel encountered a mass-casualty incident with 14 patients trapped 80 feet from land with the only access being the unfinished dock."

Although it has a fixed fuel tank, the boat's tank is below deck, on the center line and more aft, which prevented the boat from exploding on impact and claiming more lives. Witnesses said the boat veered slightly at the last minute, suggesting the driver saw the tug seconds before impact.

"Tactical options included the utilization of department policy with respect to mass-casualty incidents," said Robshaw. "Upon determination of the mass-casualty incident, sections were set up to include triage, treatment, transport and staging. First-arriving personnel were assigned to access and triage the victims. Additional arriving units, with the assistance of deputies from the St. Johns County Sheriff's office and civilian bystanders, began building a temporary bridge from plywood found at the construction site. Upon completion of the temporary bridge, these personnel formed a human chain allowing the victims to be moved to a treatment area. As a result of limited manpower, the same personnel assigned to access and triage victims were then assigned to treatment and then finally to transport." Arriving rescue transport apparatus were to stage on the two-lane road in front of the incident location. As a result of the limited-access driveway, staging rescue transport apparatus were backed down the driveway, provided with a patient, and directed either to an air transport unit or to a local receiving trauma facility.

Area departments, including the SJCFR, train for mass-casualty incidents using the Simple Triage and Rapid Treatment (START) team. START consists of rapidly triaging victims. The system allows a rescuer to assess and classify each victim into one of four categories in less than 60 seconds: green, red, yellow or black. Within 12 minutes of arrival, all of the victims were assessed and triaged.

"They did a triage on the barge to determine which patients were going to be taken off and across the improvised be able to get them up to a treatment area," SJCFR Chief Carl Shank said.

Robshaw said another challenge the first rescuers faced was the psychological impact of the conscious victims. "Most of the deceased victims were killed instantly and, as a result, the conscious victims were found to be hysterical, insisting to be removed from the environment," he said. "It was truly a challenge to attempt to stabilize the situation until the bridge could be built. In addition, all critical patients were removed prior to removing the stable patients. Most of the deceased were found in the front of the boat, the only area rescuers could make access to the viable victims."

Lessons Learned

A post-incident analysis was conducted three days after the incident. The following factors were identified:

  1. Section officers assigned to manage mass-casualty incident operations should not be directly involved in the care of individual patients.
  2. Personnel working around water need to use the personal protective equipment (PPE) provided. Provided on each apparatus for all personnel are personal flotation devices (PFDs), trauma sleeves and safety goggles.
  3. Section officers assigned to manage mass-casualty incident operations should not change the format of management as long as the system is working.
  4. When using air transport units, fire-rescue personnel should be assigned to the landing zone in order to report conditions to command. The area should be managed as a staging area with reports of the number of transport units available versus the number of transport units needed.
  5. Documentation of the victims' location after leaving the incident is needed. Initially, victims on the boat reported that 12 people were involved. Following the last victim to be removed from the treatment section, rescuers identified 14 total victims. SJCFR identified through analysis that its communication center was best suited for accountability of the victims' destination. As a rescue transport departed the scene, some were diverted from their original destination, leaving the transport officer unaware of the victims' final destination.

MICHAEL GARLOCK is a Florida- and New York-based writer specializing in fire service responses to major incidents.