Boat in fatal capsizing snagged net
Written by Sheboygan Press   
Tuesday, 10 August 2010 19:09
A boat that capsized in Lake Michigan two weeks ago — causing a fatal stress-induced heart attack for one of its occupants — overturned when a downrigger became tangled in a commercial fishing net, authorities said Friday.
This came as the Sheboygan County Sheriff's Department said "system shortcomings and human error" were to blame for the botched emergency response in which a dispatcher misheard a 911 call, causing a 24-minute delay.
Charles Koenig, 67, of Cleveland, suffered a heart attack and died in the water June 25 when the 20-foot fishing boat he and two friends were on overturned about three miles east of the Sheboygan Harbor. The friends, Thomas J. Wotruba, 61, and Steven P. Frye, 51, both of Green Bay, were rescued unhurt after the U.S. Coast Guard found them clinging to the bottom of the overturned boat.
Officials at the time said a commercial fishing net may have been involved, but Friday was the first confirmation that it caused the capsizing.
Mike Clutter, a Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources warden who investigated the capsizing, said two of the boat's downriggers — weighted metal cables used to send bait deeper into the water — snagged a rope running from the net up to a buoy marking its location. The boat was then held in place as three-foot waves came over the stern.
"They got too close to the buoys," Clutter said. "They were not able to free themselves before the waves started coming over the back. It just took on water and flipped."
Clutter said the boat capsized within minutes of snagging the rope, the situation worsened by an attempt to back the boat away from the buoy and two of the men standing on the back of the boat trying to free the lines, both of which lowered the back end of the boat and made it fill more quickly with water.
Two men — including Koenig — were wearing lifejackets when the boat capsized, and the third man was holding his and was able to put it on in the water, Clutter said.
Coroner David Leffin said Koenig was in the water for about 10 minutes and was talking to the other men, when he suddenly stopped. He was pulled from the water unconscious at 9:55 a.m. — 40 minutes after the boat capsized — and was pronounced dead about five minutes after arriving at the hospital.
Despite being dispatched within two minutes of the 9:18 a.m. 911 call, the Coast Guard didn't find Koenig for 40 minutes because a sheriff's department dispatcher incorrectly relayed the location given by the caller, authorities have said.
The investigation into that situation was detailed Friday and revealed for the first time how the information was jumbled.
In the 911 call released the day of the capsizing, the caller says the boat is taking on water and is "straight out from the harbor — 100 feet of water." The call was dropped before any other information could be gathered.
Per policy at the time, the dispatcher then contacted the Sheboygan Police Department, at first correctly telling the city dispatcher the boat is in "100 feet of water out of the harbor," Director of Operations Bill Bruckbauer said in a news release summarizing the investigation. The city dispatcher asks, "100 feet from Blue Harbor?" and the county dispatcher incorrectly replies, "100 feet out in the harbor."
Bruckbauer said the dispatcher was unaware that water in the harbor could not have been 100 feet deep.
A sheriff's department sergeant overheard a reference to 100 feet of water but did not check on the situation for nine minutes because he was on another call. He discovered an error had been made after talking to the dispatcher.
The 911 call was eventually replayed, and the city and the Coast Guard were notified at 9:42 a.m. that the boat in distress was in 100 feet of water at least a mile east of the harbor.
Sheriff Mike Helmke declined to name the dispatcher — describing the person only as a veteran with the department — or the supervisor involved. He said the dispatcher did not face any discipline but could be given additional training related to "multitasking and active listening skills."
"It boiled down to basically a human error," Helmke said. "When you pass information on from one person to the next, you always have that possibility it will be misinterpreted."
Bruckbauer said the error was due to five factors: the dispatcher's lack of knowledge on water depth, the fact that all 911 calls in the county are routed to the sheriff's department, the lack of a supervisor exclusive to the dispatch center, the city's inability to review the 911 call and the county's calling the city instead of dealing directly with the Coast Guard.
Helmke said the sheriff's department as a result changed its policy so that the Coast Guard will be contacted directly for all future emergencies involving the lake or harbor. Under the prior policy, the sheriff's department would first transfer calls within the harbor to Sheboygan police, since the harbor is in the city and therefore under police jurisdiction.
"It's just more efficient. I talked to Chief (Marcus) Evans (of the Coast Guard) and we agreed that they're there, they're ready to go a lot quicker than we are, so why delay the response for another minute?," Helmke said.
Helmke said he didn't know if a quicker dispatch could have changed the tragic outcome of the situation. Leffin said the day of the incident that he didn't think getting there 24 minutes sooner would have saved Koenig's life.
"Obviously, in an emergency time is of the essence," Helmke said. "Whether or not the person would have lived I can't say."
The net struck by Koenig's boat was one of nine commercial fishing trap nets beneath the water east of Sheboygan, Clutter said.
The nets, used to catch whitefish, are anchored to the bottom and consist of a mesh box connected to two wings hundreds of feet long that form a 'V' directing the fish inside. The fish hit the wings and follow them toward the box, eventually swimming through a small opening they are unable to swim back through.
Clutter said the net the boat hit was in 118 feet of water and came up 25 feet from the bottom.
"If these guys hadn't caught that rope, they'd have easily cleared those nets," Clutter said.
The net, like six of the other nine, was anchored to the bottom but not set up for use when the incident occurred. Clutter said the net's owner had the proper permits and properly used buoys with orange or black flags to mark the box and the ends of the wings.
The situation that led to the capsizing is specifically addressed in a Sea Grant brochure about trap nets called "Don't Get Trapped."
It warns boaters to give a wide berth when passing the nets and avoid trolling between the buoys, since fishing gear could snag on the net below. If lines become tangled, boaters should keep the bow of the boat facing into the waves and immediately release the tension and cut any downrigger cables.

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