The M/V Cahaba Tugboat Incident

Randomly found this story on Snopes from 1979 about a boat that completely flipped over underwater and righted itself.  It seems unbelievable and insane but it’s  actually true which is incredible.  The most amazing part is the boat continued to be used and the crew survived.  Awesome.

towboat06April 28, 1979, Alabama. The 80-foot 1,800hp towboat Motor Vessel Cahaba was dropping two barges full of coal down the Tombigee River in Western Alabama, having just refueled 14 miles upstream at Demopolis, Alabama. It was owned and operated by the Warrior and Gulf Navigation of Mobile, a subsidiary of Pittsburg Steel, and was on its return trip to the McDuffie Coal Terminal at the mouth of the Mobile River to export its cargo.

At its helm stood Jimmy Wilkerson, and on board were his pilot, Earl Barhart, as well as two deckhands.

As he approached the Rooster Bridge, a drawbridge along the Dixie Overland Highway and Route 80, he prepared to uncouple the barges, as was common practice, and to let them drift through eastern span where the currents were less harsh. The towboat would then reverse upstream and pass through the western lift span, pass through, and catch up with the barges. His deckhands proceeded to remove the rigging and the winch wires, but for some reason neglected to do so on the starboard side.

To make things worse, that year’s spring had seen particularly harsh, with the river level high and the currents particularly swift. The boat, with a cable still strapping its starboard side, began to align itself with the bridge and slowly list.

Throughout the ordeal, Jimmy Wilkinson never left the helm. As he recognized that his 37-foot high towboat would be pulled into the 11-foot span of the eastern span, he yelled into his loudspeaker: “All right, y’all, this ain’t no fire drill. Get off the damn bridge!”

Though the wheelhouse filled with water and Wilkinson was left holding onto the portside door frame, the boat amazingly enough righted itself at the other side, as anxious passerbys were sure that the ship was doomed. A forward-thinking reporter called Charles Barger, working for the Linden “Democrat-Reporter”, quickly took his camera and snapped the photographs that we see today, testament to a series of remarkable coincidences that righted this sturdy towboat.

The main reasons that are attributed to the unthinkable resurfacing of the Cahaba are two-fold. Firstly, the ship had been refueled 14 miles upstream and had therefore a nearly full tank, which acted as ballast and prevented the boat from rolling over, not unlike a buoy. As an added benefit, the Warrior and Gulf Navigation Company had installed three to four feet of cement at the bottom of the ship.

With the notice of the M/V Tallapoosa, which was waiting to pass the Rooster bridge, and the M/V Cathy Parker, which was already downstream, they were able to shove the runaway barges into an empty cornfield downstream and come to the assistance of Wilkinson. While he was uninjured, a good friend of his, Captain Michael L. Smith, later described how at a meeting with Wilkinson a month or so later, “his hands were still shaking too much for the ash to build up to any degree”…

Though both the bridge and the boat suffered damage, the boat was swiftly repaired and put back into service. The bridge was demolished in 1980 and replaced. The M/V Cahaba was sold and rechristened on June 11, 1999, as the “Capt. Ed Harris” in Buffalo, West Virginia.

Text and pictures from The M/V Cahaba Tugboat Incident, April 28, 1979

8 thoughts on “The M/V Cahaba Tugboat Incident

  1. Some 25 years ago I saw LIVE VIDEO (as in a Quick Time file) of this incident. Does ANYONE have access to this video.I have been boating on the Mississippi for nearly 30 years. Would love to have the video.
    JS – Saint Paul, MN

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  2. Jerry,

    I don’t know of any video. The only videos I’ve been able to dig up are slideshows of the photos I have above.

    Please let us know if you find something though!

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  3. Well, this was surprising to me as I am a partner in the timber operation on the Sumter County side of the US Highway “Rooster Bridge” crossing of the Black Warrior River near Demopolis, Alabama. If the bridge is the Rooster Bridge, that’s the Black Warrior for sure. Neither my mother nor her grandmother, from whom I acquired my share in this property ever mentioned anything about what is depicted as a very unlikely and fortunate escape for the Cahaba crew.

    If I can get a clear answer from my folks down in Sumter County, I’ll post the story being told by those working and living there and who would’ve been there at the time.

    FYI, that appears to be the original Rooster Bridge over the Black Warrior River (which flows into the Tombigbee/Mobile River system) and is not connected with the Mississippi River or its watershed. The bridge shown carried the traffic of United States Highway 80 between Demopolis, Alabama and Meridian, Mississippi and was indeed funded through the donation of several thousand roosters sold at auction in 1920. The bridge would have been way overdue for replacement by 1979 and was replaced by the end of 1980.

    I would be flabbergasted if live video existed of anything around the Rooster Bridge (or my family’s farming operation) within a decade of 1979. I might be surprised if there were video cameras anywhere on the property now to be honest. Plus video cameras were notoriously expensive in the late 70s and I can guarantee any video equipment would be used to protect our property and not a 60 year old bridge. So there’s not likely to be a video unless someone at the farming operation on the opposite side of the Black Warrior River had a very early first generation VCR with a separate video camera.

    While I’d be very doubtful of the veracity of video tape of the incident (if it’s not a hoax), I’m willing to be convinced. The photos, if verified as legitimate, are an incredible enough depiction of this episode for me.

    Again, I have never heard a peep about this episode and my mom loved to talk so I need to take a closer look.

    If this was at my tree operation, I’d love to talk to the photographer if the incident is not a “rural legend.”

    Thanks,

    Stewart Brooker
    Estate of Prather Pipes Brooker
    Rooster Bridge Farms
    Mobile, Alabama

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  4. I did have a web site with the live video of this but itwas on my old laptop and I replaced it 3 years ago, but am still truing to locate it, my brother had sent it to me.

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  5. After a few inquiries to those who would have been in a position to have described or known about such an incident, I can report (not surprisingly) that this incident is known to the local folks by these same pictures and reports noted here. In other words, no one saw it happen from the Sumter County side. I’m inclined to believe it happened and am relieved no one perished. As this tale is not independently verifiable, some of my relatives remain unconvinced. Alas, I can not provide any credit nor discredit to the episode or this quite entertaining tale. Tie up properly folks.

    Stewart Brooker

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