When Sid Smith heard the distress call Wednesday night from a tugboat captain, he was having his own issues. A chain on the net reel of his fishing vessel had snapped, and, Smith said, he and his two crewmen were battling 40 mph winds and surging waters to pull in his dragging net and get safely docked at Newport, Rhode Island.
"But you have to do something," said Smith, 60, a third-generation commercial fisherman from Greenport, describing his crew's successful rescue of four men from a sunken tugboat off Port Judith, Rhode Island. It took the 63-foot Merit about 45 minutes to travel four miles to where the tug, the 55-foot Karen Jean, had gone under. Its crew was in about 88 feet of water, the Coast Guard said.
"Three were in a raft and one was in the water, holding onto the raft," Smith said. "The tug had already sunk when we got there."
Smith couldn't say exactly how long he worked with his two crewmen -- Gary Detrick, also of Greenport, and Ernie Nicholson of Newport -- to pull the four from the water.
"Things like this just happen fast," he said. It was a flurry of controlled chaos set under black skies and deafening winds and in wild ocean waters.
"You just don't know when you get there. . . . They can't talk to you, and you don't know if you are going to run someone over in the water."
Smith said the tug had gone under while towing a 110-foot deck barge, which was still attached by a tow line.
"We were trying to get to them and not get our boat caught in the tug's tow line," he said. "It took some finagling, and we were able to get the raft to come to us."
Getting the tug's three crewmen into the Merit was tough; it was tougher to pull the fourth man, the tug's captain, from the water, Smith said.
"He's a big man, and he's probably been in the water maybe 40 minutes. He's almost done. We finally were able to get him into our boat with a ladder."
Smith said the four from the Karen Jean, from South Carolina, were "lucky. Very, very lucky. And when we got them out they were happy. Very, very happy."
By the time the other rescue boats arrived, the four were safely aboard the Merit and headed for Point Judith, where Smith remained Thursday.
The Coast Guard said the tug's four crewmen were OK and refused medical attention. It said plans were being made to salvage the tug and recover the barge. As for Smith, he said he was still a "little shaken."
"That tug went down fast. Very fast."