Missing tow boat operator’s body found

Published 8:38 pm Friday, January 19, 2018



The body of a missing TowBoatUS captain was recovered from the Pungo River on Friday afternoon, according to officials.

“We did make a recovery today and part of the family is still being notified, so specifics as far as identity goes have not been released,” said Chris Newkirk, Beaufort County’s operations chief of fire/emergency management.

Newkirk said the body was recovered in the vicinity of where a 911 call was made in the early hours of Thursday morning — a call made by the pilot of a sport fishing being towed by a 21-foot TowBoatUS vessel. Newkirk said the disabled boat was in the Pamlico River when it was picked up by the tow boat out of Belhaven.

“The way we understand it, based on the limited information we’ve gotten — it was a 45-foot sport fisher; it was in the Pamlico (River) and reportedly started taking on water, but it was something mechanical that wouldn’t allow it to operate on its own,” Newkirk said.

According to officials, the tow boat capsized in the Pungo River, near the intersection of the Pungo and Pamlico rivers, in the height of a winter storm that caused high winds, rough seas and limited visibility due to snow. The U.S. Coast Guard first responded with a boat and crew from Hobucken and a helicopter search crew from Elizabeth City, while local law enforcement responded by land.

By daylight Thursday, volunteer fire and EMS departments, water-rescue teams, Marine Fisheries and Wildlife Resources officers and local commercial fishermen were on the water searching for the missing man, but the weather hampered rescue efforts.

“Conditions yesterday really limited our search effort, limited what we could use and where we could use it,” Newkirk said Friday evening. “Today was much better.”

The search was called off at sundown Thursday and resumed Friday morning. Newkirk said recovery was further hampered by the distance the two boats — still tethered together with the tow vessel mostly submerged — drifted from where the boat originally capsized. High winds pushed both vessels out of the Pungo River to the south side of the Pamlico.

“It drifted until it wedged up into the shoals about two miles west of Pamlico Point,” Newkirk said. “The Coast Guard attached a buoy to the partially sunken tow boat. That gave us a point to start from, but miles had passed. … We recovered the missing person in the Pungo River, at the area where we believe the boat originally capsized. Where we recovered him and where the boat is now are several miles apart.”

Newkirk said SONAR was used to follow the path of the dragged tow boat back to the location where the boat capsized and the recovery effort resumed with a search pattern from the point.

“It’s not the ending that we were hoping for, but it was closure,” Newkirk said.