“We’re not going to fit!” cried Nancy, as the swing span caught the trawler.“Just before the collision, I threw it into reverse,” says Tom James, 77, of Boca Grande, Fla. The slow-moving span hit the boat’s port side, pushing the starboard side against the bridge’s bulwark. “We kind of squeezed back out.”
The couple was fortunate. Had Tortuga been going faster, James doubts he would have been able to back the boat, and the bridge would have crushed the pilothouse, sweeping him, at the wheel on the flybridge, and Nancy, on the bow, into the river. (The bridge’s vertical clearance is 5 feet.) As it was, the damage was substantial but reparable: bent rails on the port side, damage to the hull on the starboard side, and the port side of a seat in front of the pilothouse crushed where the bridge hit it. James estimates the damage at $10,000 to $20,000.
“There are a lot of issues here,” he says. First, he didn’t hear a bridge-closing signal. Neither did Nancy or two boaters at the Moore Haven city docks a block away. James says he had just contacted the lockmaster at the Moore Haven lock a little more than a quarter-mile east of the bridge on the Caloosahatchee — the western end of the Okeechobee Waterway, which runs from Fort Myers on the west coast to Stuart on the east coast. The Jameses had set off from Boca Grande the morning of Jan. 27, aiming to make Clewiston that evening.
James says he was unaware that there is no coordination — no radio communication — between the bridge and the lock. He thought the lockmaster’s clearance also allowed him to pass through the 50-foot-wide bridge opening. He says the bridge’s moving span was partially closed, with the end pointed toward him, so it seemed not to be moving. “The bridge was moving so slowly that we couldn’t perceive the movement,” James says. “That trapped us into thinking it was stationary.”
James had his eye on the lock ahead, while his wife prepared lines on the bow to secure the trawler in the lock. “My mind didn’t signal anything until my wife [screamed], ‘We’re not going to fit!’ She was right. We were literally scissored.”
After it was over, the pair saw a locomotive stopped on the tracks a block or two south of the bridge and a railroad worker standing by it, the locomotive evidently waiting for the bridge to close. The bridge is owned and operated by South Central Florida Express, a subsidiary of Clewiston, Fla.-based U.S. Sugar Corp., which uses the rail line to haul sugar cane around Lake Okeechobee. Federal bridge regulations say the bridge should open to boats on signal from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m., but James says it is usually left open and unmanned during the day for boats to pass through unless a train is coming. It is closed from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. There is no radio communication between the bridge and either boats or the lockmaster, according to James, who spoke with the lockmaster. South Central Florida Express didn’t return phone calls to talk about the incident.
James says the bridge failed his safety test on several counts. It should have sounded a signal as it closed. There should have been at least two railroad workers there during the closing, including one at the bridge to watch for boat traffic. And there ought to be some kind of radio communication between the bridge and lockmaster and the bridge and boats, especially when the span is closing.
His advice: “You can never assume that an open railroad bridge is going to stay open, and never assume you’ll hear the proper [closing] signals. Be aware.”
This article originally appeared in the April 2012 issue.