Huntsville, AL Riverboat SCITANIC Accident, July 1984

Huntsville AL SCItanic befor accident.jpg Huntsville AL Map of accident area showing winds.jpg


Huntsville, Ala. (UPI) -- A hurricane-force wind shear capsized a riverboat carrying 18 electronic company employees and family members on a Tennessee River outing Saturday, killing 11 people trapped in lower deck lounge.
Seven people survived the capsizing of the two-deck, 90-foot sternwheeler "SCItanic" owned by SCI Corp. of Huntsville, when it was buffeted by 70 mph winds.
Leonard Mitchum, a founder of SCI, said all 18 people aboard, including three crewmen, were company employees or families of employees.
At least one of the victims was a child, 8-year-old JASON TOLBERT. The boy's parents, MR. and MRS. RANDALL E. TOLBERT; KANTA GOEL, 30; CARL H. LARGEN, 40; NANCY PRATT; SANDRA DUNSON and PATRICIA ANN BATTLE also died in the accident. The names of the other victims were not immediately available.
"Everyone is accounted for," Madison County Chief Deputy Charlie Norment said. "The survivors weren't seriously injured. They happened to be the ones who got the doors open and got out."
The captain, FRANK MAY, 31, of Huntsville, and crewmembers GARY McCLUSKEY and MARLAINA CRESSY, were among the survivors. One of the survivors, MARGARET LARGEN, was admitted to Huntsville Hospital for observation. The other survivors were treated and released or did not require medical attention, authorities said.
Norment said the captain and a crewman were in the wheelhouse atop the second-deck cabin when
the storm struck. The passengers were sent to the lower deck lounge to ride out the storm. One crewman was instructed to break out life-jackets.
Alabama Marine Patrol Investigator John Clifton said a preliminary report showed it "probably was wind shear" that caused the 30-foot high vessel to overturn. "The height had a lot to do with it," he said.
Clifton said that the weather was not threatening when the "SCItanic" departed about 10:20 a.m. CST. But the weather worsened in the next hour and the vessel capsized about 11:30 a.m. as it was attempting to return to the landing, he said.
"As far as I can tell, FRANK (MAY) checked the weather. He was going by the book. He did everything he was supposed to do," Clifton said.
"It was decent when they went out. It started to rain and the wind picked up about 11:15."
Divers rushed to the murky green waters of the Tennessee River -- 400 yards wide where the
"SCItanic" overturned -- and worked in a violent storm from a lone boat anchored beside the wreck. All that could be seen of the paddlewheeler was its green pontoon hull.
Gene Sapp, the president of SCI, a multi-million dollar aerospace and electronics firm with 4,000 employees, said the company allowed different departments to use the boat for recreation each weekend.
"It was a terrible tragedy," Sapp said. "It was an act of God and we are deply saddened by it."
The "SCItanic" was described as a modern, diesel-powered copy of the old paddlewheel riverboats.
CURT JONES, 30, of Huntsville, said he was helping two friends repair a boat when he heard yelling for the marine police boat and rushed to the scene about 300 yards away.
"The boat was completely upside down in the water. The wind just flipped it over," JONES said.
"It was capsized in about 25 feet of water. Only a small part of the boat wasn't underneath the surface."
JONES said he saw four of the bodies being placed inside ambulances at the scene.
"There were four body bags. Well, one of them wasn't even in a bag until people started complaining," he said. "I don't think any friends or relatives had gotten there yet. There weren't any teary eyes."
JONES said the "big party boat" was coming back in to shore when the accident occurred. He said about 15 divers were looking for bodies.
The National Weather Service said winds of up to 70 mph occurred during thunderstorms at the Army's Redstone Arsenal in the vicinity of the boating accident.
The mishap occurred in the Ditto's Landing recreation area, about 10 miles south of Huntsville.
Other storm damage was reported at Lacey's Spring in Morgan County, where a trailer was overturned and several fruit stands were blown apart by high winds, the weather service said.

Syracuse Herald Journal New York 1984-07-08