A tugboat capsized and sunk in the Fraser River near the Pattullo Bridge on Thursday just before 9 a.m., and the high speed of the rising river likely played a factor, said a Coast Guard spokesman.
Canadian Coast Guard maritime coordinator Jeff Olsson said two tugs were working with a barge when one of the boats overturned and sank. It’s believed the tug was chasing after the barge as it got away from a dock on the Surrey side of the Fraser.
The tug’s captain was thrown into the Fraser River, but the other tug managed to come to his rescue. He was taken ashore and then whisked off to Royal Columbian Hospital with undetermined injuries.
Another worker was on the barge, which bumped into the 1904 CN Rail train bridge just upriver from the Pattullo. Olsson said the structure was not damaged. The worker remained on the barge as the second tug guided it to safety. The worker was then taken off the barge by Coast Guard hovercraft, which happened to be working just down river at Annacis Island and responded to the mayday call along with many other marine vessels in the area.
Olsson said the tugboat was not a very big vessel, about eight metres. Some minor debris was later found in the river including a raft that had been attached to it, seen near the Alex Fraser Bridge.
Olsson said there will have to be an environmental response to the incident. Transport Canada officials were at the site investigating the incident Friday.
The Fraser’s levels are very high because a large winter snowpack is melting in northern British Columbia. The high volume of water likely played a role in the capsizing, said Olsson.
“It’s pretty safe to say the rate of current, estimated five knots—and that’s fairly fast—it’s pretty hard to say it wasn’t a factor. It definitely didn’t help,” said Olsson.
New Westminster police said the department, New West Fire and Rescue, Surrey RCMP, the Coast Guard Hovercraft and a number of private vessels already on the river responded.
The strong currents narrow the path vessels have to navigate through the rail bridge, the Pattullo and SkyTrain bridge pylons, said Paul Johansen, who runs tours on the Edgewater Fortune from a New Westminster dock just down river from the Pattullo.
“It’s like whitewater rafting,” said Johansen. “The back eddies, it’s just whirly-twirly.”
Federal Minister of Fisheries and Oceans Keith Ashfield issued a release Thursday praising the work of the search and rescue network. He pointed out the Coast Guard hovercraft from Sea Island in Richmond, which is where Vancouver airport sits, was dispatched within minutes.
Ashfield and the Conservative government have recently come under fire for plans to close the Vancouver rescue station stating the hovercraft will be able to provide service.
The release said Fin Donnelly, NDP fisheries critic and New Westminster-Coquitlam and Port Moody MP was Ashfield trying to justify a bad decision.
“It is a desperate attempt,” said Donnelly. “If this was in False Creek, and the hovercraft had to get around into False Creek, it wouldn’t have been as quick and that’s what the Kitsilano station provides, a strategic location in minutes.”
Donnelly also pointed out the Coast Guard was not only fortunate the hovercraft was nearby, but also wasn’t in disrepair and there were trained officers on board to take action.
“Imagine if it was on call, and it was somewhere by Vancouver Island, it couldn’t have responded in the way it did,” said Donnelly.