2011-02-03 / Local & State

Sunken Riverboat Still Mired In Western Pa. River

By Michael Pound
BEAVER COUNTY TIMES

NEVILLE, Pa. (AP) – If things had gone to plan, the Becky Thatcher would be close to resuming her rightful spot as a floating piece of history on the banks of Pittsburgh’s rivers.

But not long after she was towed from Marietta, Ohio – her home since 1975 – to a temporary mooring at Neville Island, the 83-yearold sternwheeler sank in the shallow water, its snow-covered wooden decks buckling under the weight of February’s snow.

And part of the vessel is still there.

All that’s visible from the Glenfield side of the Ohio River is the paddlewheel, an ice-covered red-and-rusty metal frame. But that’s still attached to the boat’s steel hull, which is still mired on the river’s muddy floor.

A Nashville businessman, Jeffrey Levin, bought the boat from a nonprofit group in Marietta five years ago; Levin brought it to Pittsburgh in 2009, with designs on restoring it and setting it up as a floating restaurant somewhere along the riverbanks.

“We had high hopes for her,’’ Levin, who could not be reached for comment, told The Times last March. “We thought she would have done very well here.’’

But when it sank in February, Levin had to move quickly to get the sunken ship out of the water; the Coast Guard and the Army Corps of Engineers worried that debris from the sternwheeler’s decks would break free and damage other river vessels or foul the locks and dams downstream.

Levin hired Delta Demolition, a Newton Falls, Ohiobased marine demolition contractor to raise the ship, and much of that work went smoothly; Lee Chaklos, Delta’s owner, said the most of that job went as anticipated, although his workers did have to spend time chasing some debris.

But the progress stopped when it came to the hull, Chaklos said. Weather was a factor – a quick thaw made working on the river too dangerous for a time. But the hull was bogged down in the mud alongside Neville Island, and Delta didn’t have the equipment on hand to make it budge.

“The big thing was that we were past the point where it was a danger to river traffic,’’ Chaklos said of the structure, which is also cabled to nearby pilings and the shore. “It’s well out of the channel, and the Coast Guard doesn’t have concerns about the hull going anywhere.’’

At different points in the months since, divers have tried to determine what it could take to raise the hull, but Chaklos said they were unable to find anything definitive. Perhaps by the end of the month Chaklos will bring experienced river divers to the site to see what needs to be done to raise the hull.

“Some barges are sealed and some aren’t, and we don’t know what the case is with this one,’’ Chaklos said. “And if it’s not, we’ll have to determine how much silt has collected inside.’’

Water and silt could be pumped from the inside of the hull, or it could be forced out with high-pressure water streams; Chaklos said the proper course of action would be determined by what the divers find.

“Once we have the information and know what we need to do, it won’t be a tough job,’’ he said. “When we get it emptied, it’ll come right up.’’

What happens then? The hull could be scrapped, and Chaklos said scrap prices are making it seem that could be a good option. But if the hull is in decent shape, Chaklos said he might be willing to buy it from Levin and repurpose it as a working barge.

And once it’s raised, the final question – what caused the Becky Thatcher to sink – may be answered.

Or, as Chaklos said, maybe not.

“We’ll get a look at any damage to the hull, but that may not give us many answers,’’ he said. “We won’t know until we get a look, and we may not know even then.’’

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