Crewman Tells Fury Of Blast
Explosion On Tug Claims One Life
By Hal Bush (Times Herald River Correspondent)
Harsens Island - "I was blown right out the steel door of the pilot house, and everything was on fire."
This is how Herman (Jake) Cole today described what happened to him when the tugboat ANCHOR BAY exploded and burned Thursday in the South Channel of the St. Clair River.
The accident took the life of a crewman, Melvin Kauppila, 39, of 246 North Main Street, Marine City, and injured Mr. Cole and two other co-workers aboard the 45-foot craft of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
Mr. Cole, 63, of 6563 Holland Road, Algonac, Willis A. Cross Jr., 46, of 7455 Marsh Road, Marine City, and Willis Dibble, 22, of 160 1/2 South Water Street, Marine City, are reported in fair condition today in River District Hospital, St. Clair.
All three suffered severe burns on the face, head, and hands. Mr. Cole is being examined for a back injury.
In describing the tragedy today to the Times Herald, Mr. Cole said:
"All four of us were in the pilot house of the tugboat, heading from the channel into Anchor Bay to check the weather before towing a 120-foot sweep raft to Detroit for the winter. (A sweep raft is used by the corps to check the bottom of the river for sandbars).
The explosion came from under the pilot house deck, and then everything was on fire in the pilot house. We have no idea how it happened. (The tugboat's engine is located under the deck).
"I was blown right out the steel door. We were all dazed. I don't know how the other two (Cross and Dibble) got out.
"Melvin (the fatal victim) was still in the burning pilot house, so I dragged him out the door and threw water on him to put the fire out. It took everything I had to get him out, because my back was almost paralyzed.
"Our heavy clothing protected us from worse burns.
"The captain of the boat, Mr. Cross, tried to sound the danger signal. The Coast Guard was there in a few minutes. I'm thankful to be alive."
Two men of the St. Clair Flats Coast Guard Station, Harsens Island, who were on patrol, witnessed the fire on the tug and rescued the survivors.
They are Seaman William J. McKeon, 22, and Engineman 3/C Roger J. Johnson, 21.
"We were following the ANCHOR BAY in our 30-foot utility boat, about a half mile behind them," Seaman McKeon said.
"We didn't hear the explosion because of the noise of the engines, but we saw big flames come from the pilot house and then a lot of black smoke." he said.
"When we got to the tug, it was aground and its engines were running but not engaged. There were two men standing and one kneeling on the stern of the boat.
"The victim was laying next to the cabin on the starboard side. His clothes had been blown off. We helped the three men into our boat and returned to the Coast Guard Station."
The injured were taken by ambulance and a Harsens Island fire department rescue vehicle to River District Hospital.
Clay Township Police also were on the scene to assist in removal of the victim. St. Clair State Police also investigated.
The Coast Guard cutter BRAMBLE arrived shortly afterward to extinguish the fire aboard the tug and to pull the craft from shore.
Another Corps of Engineers tugboat, the AU SABLE, brought the ANCHOR BAY to the Coast Guard station about a mile upstream from where the accident occurred. A Coast Guard patrol boat assisted.
Corps of Engineers personnel from Detroit arrived at the station to investigate the accident. A corps board of inquiry was to investigate further into the cause of the explosion.
The accident occurred at about 9:45 a.m. at the mouth of the South Channel off Anchor Bay, near the Old Club on Harsens Island.
The tugboat ANCHOR BAY was based at Marine City, as were its four crew members.
Mr. Kauppila was born Jan. 21, 1929 in Copper City, Mich.
He never married.
He is survived by his parents, Mr. and Mrs. Waino Kauppila, Copper City, and two brothers, Gordon Kauppila, who lives in Wisconsin, and Walter Kauppila, Detroit.
Funeral services will be conducted Monday in Peterson Funeral Home, Calumet. Burial will be in Lakeview Cemetery, Calumet.
FIRE-DAMAGED TUG BROUGHT TO DOCK
The Corps of Engineers tug ANCHOR BAY is made fast to the dock at the St. Clair Flats Coast Guard Station on Harsens Island Thursday after an explosion and fire wrecked the tug's interior, killing one crewman and injuring three others. Coast Guards are on board here, throwing out the lines. Craft at left is the station's rescue boat, one of several vessels which went to the scene. Lower photo shows closeup of the tug's pilot house, where much of the damage occurred.