DECATUR, Ala. (WHNT) – An Alabama Marine Police report of the boating accident Tuesday on the Tennessee River that claimed the life of an elderly Athens man states there was no visible warning of a downed TVA power line in the water.
A bass boat carrying two men, Gary Thacker and Anthony Szozda, both of Athens, struck the downed line at approximately 5:30PM, as the men were preparing to take part in a weekly fishing tournament. Thacker, who was piloting the boat, was physically unharmed. Szozda died after the line struck him in the neck and head causing massive bodily injury.
The report, filed by Alabama Marine Police Officer Larry Adams, and released to WHNT
News 19 by Marine Police officials in Montgomery Thursday afternoon, states the non-energized TVA high voltage transmission line fell into the river at approximately 2:40PM, almost three hours before the fatal accident, as construction workers were installing new lines across the river between Browns Ferry Nuclear Power Plant in Limestone County, and an area in Morgan County near Nucor Steel in Decatur. The report indicates the river is about 1.25 miles wide at that point.
TVA officials met with reporters Wednesday afternoon in Huntsville to discuss the incident and said the agency was conducting an internal investigation to determine exactly what happened to cause the line to fall into the water, and what happened during the next three hours following the mishap before the boat struck the downed line.
TVA’s Vice President of Operations, Justin Maierhofer, told reporters the rigging used to drag the new line across the river malfunctioned, dropping the electric line into the river. Marine Police confirm TVA workers contacted the U.S. Coast Guard to inform them of the situation, and state the Coast Guard did broadcast a radio warning to boaters. In fact, the Coast Guard closed a portion of the river to commercial traffic between the Decatur railroad bridge and Wheeler Lock and Dam.
However, the overwhelming majority of small fishing boats, along with many pleasure craft that use the Tennessee River daily, do not carry marine radios and their operators could not have known of the danger posed by the downed line.
Adams’ report says Thacker said “no one was blocking the river, and the line was completely unmarked, with no markings in the water,” to warn boaters of the danger. The report says two TVA boats containing “flag crews” were operating in the area. Maierhofer says one of the boats unsuccessfully attempted to signal Thacker of the construction activities. However, another TVA spokesperson told reporters the two boats were primarily in the water to assist with efforts to retrieve the power line although, she says, the operators did manage to warn a number of other boaters of the danger.
Adams’ report says when investigators inspected the area at 7:45PM, more than two hours after the fatal accident, there were still “no water buoy markings, as well as no markings on the power line.”
WHNT News 19 visited the site Wednesday afternoon and observed low hanging lines that stretched completely across the river. They were not hanging low enough to pose any risk to boaters on the river, however, with the possible exception of taller commercial vessels. Construction activity was still underway on the Morgan County side, however a Morgan County Sheriff’s Deputy was stationed at the work site and explained TVA wanted no one in the area. Reporters were turned back and were not allowed to photograph the work, even from a distance behind where the deputy had stationed his patrol car blocking access to the area.
The full text of Adams’ summary from the Alabama Marine Police report is posted below:
“On 30 July 2013, crews from TVA were working on non-powered electrical lines (new line) that stretched across the Tennessee River from Cow Ford Landing to Independence Tube (river mile marker 297.5). This area of the river is approximately 1 1/4 (1.25) miles wide. At approximately 1440, a line fell unexpectantly into the water. The TVA crew notified the US Coast Guard, who sent out a warning on marine radios. The river was shut down to commercial traffic from the Decatur Rail Road Bridge to Wheeler Lock and Dam. Two TVA boats containing “flag-crews” were operating in the area mentioned above (from Cow Ford Landing to Independence Tube, approximately 1 1/4 mile wide, containing three marked river channels and two boat launch ramps.). The water in this area is deep enough that recreational boats (fishing) can operate from bank to bank without regards to the marked channel. From 1440 until approximately 1730, crews worked on raising the line back up. At approximately 1730, as the line was being raised above the water, a bass boat, driven by Gary Thacker, struck the line from the bow area at approximately 50-70 mph. Initial impact was on the front seat pedestal, then the line struck the passenger, Anthony Szozda, above the shoulders in the neck area, almost decapitating him. The line struck the operator above the head, removing his headgear. The line then struck the rear seat pedestal, and then finally struck the “pole anchor” located at the stern of the vessel. No structural damage was visible to the boat hull. The boat, like most fishing and pleasure boats, did not contain a marine radio. Mr. Thacker (operator) reported no one was blocking the river, and the line was completely unmarked, with no markings in the water to warn him of the line. An inspection of the area at approximately 1945, revealed no water buoy markings, as well as no markings on the power line. Mr. Thacker was later instructed by the TVA crew (who contacted 911 by phone) to drive his boat back to Ingalls Harbor. Decatur PD and the Morgan County Coroner met Thacker at the Harbor and pronounced the passenger, Szozda, deceased at 1810.”