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Tugboat in fatal sinking off Fire Island to be raised as part of investigation

Donald Maloney, 60, died when the 23-year-old tugboat

Donald Maloney, 60, died when the 23-year-old tugboat Sea Bear sank on March 14. Credit: Courtesy of Kevin Maloney

A tugboat that sank rapidly last month off Fire Island, killing a co-captain who did not don an immersion suit, will be salvaged to aid the Coast Guard investigation.

George Wittich, an executive with Wittich Bros. Marine Inc. of Brielle, New Jersey, owner of the lost vessel, the 23-year-old Sea Bear, said last week that a contract has been signed to raise the 65-foot tug as soon as weather permits. He said he could not comment further because "it's still under investigation."

Three crew members were rescued from the Atlantic Ocean after putting on survival suits and abandoning the Sea Bear when it began taking on water off Fire Island Pines on March 14. Donald Maloney, 60, of Peckville, Pennsylvania, a Long Island native and one of two captains aboard, ended up in the water without thermal protection and died.

Maloney was an experienced and careful mariner from a family of tugboat skippers, said his brother Kevin Maloney of Sayville, himself a tug captain.

"His whole career was tugs," said Maloney, 58, who works out of New York Harbor for Vane Brothers of Baltimore. He said he, Daniel and a third brother, Steven, all grew up working on the tug Altoona operated by their father, Donald W. Maloney Sr., who died in 2005, when they lived in Farmingville.

The tug was traveling from Hampton Bays to New York City after completing a dredging project in Moriches, the Coast Guard said. When it began to sink about a mile off Fire Island Pines at 2:15 p.m., a member of the crew called the Coast Guard, which dispatched a helicopter from Cape Cod and boats from Fire Island and Shinnecock.

The Fire Island crew arrived at 2:45 and, despite poor visibility, found the survivors huddled together around two life rings in the 37-degree water at 3:54. Donald Maloney was found, unresponsive, at 5:09 by the tugboat Willie Lander.

Survivors interviewed

Lt. Junior Grade Martin Betts of Coast Guard Sector Long Island Sound said "the survivors have been interviewed but it's tough to say at this point" why the tug sank. "Apparently, they were taking on water pretty quickly. I can't speculate on why he could not put on the immersion suit. That's part of the investigation."

The other co-captain, Lars Vetland, 43, of Staten Island, and crew members Jason Reimer, 38, of Leonardo, New Jersey, and Rainer Bendixen, 22, of Bay Head, New Jersey, were treated at the Fire Island Coast Guard station for hypothermia.

Donald Maloney worked on and off for Wittich and other towing companies, sometimes taking time off to care for his daughter, Corrine, of Medford, who lost a leg to cancer, his brother said.

Kevin Maloney has not learned from any of the survivors or company executives where his brother was and what he was doing as the tug foundered. But he discounted media reports that Donald failed to put on his immersion suit because he had panicked.

"He was very cool and calm. No . . . [crew members] said he panicked," said Maloney, who learned of the accident while he was working in New York Harbor that night through calls from other captains in the close-knit towing community.

"Donnie and I worked together in different places, and we were in worse situations" than when the Sea Bear sank. "He handled those situations very well," he said.

Brother's cautious history

His brother would also mentor other crew members and caution them about the dangers of tugboating. "You try to teach the fellows about the close calls," some involving family members, Kevin Maloney said.

He recalled, "Once Donnie was asked to take a barge from Hempstead Harbor to the city and he turned it down because of high seas, and then another fella on another tug said he would take it, and that boat needed to be rescued because it was taking on water," he said.

Kevin Maloney has a photo of the Red Star tug Devon that went down with his father aboard on Aug. 31, 1960, when it was going to the aid of the tanker Helen Miller near Hell Gate in the East River. The Devon was rammed by another tanker, the Craig Reinauer, off Wards Island, where all seven aboard were rescued.

He said he was on a tug when a deckhand fell between two barges on the Hudson River and was fatally crushed. And another brother, Steven Maloney, now a Miami resident, was a deckhand on the tug Morton Bouchard when it sank in the Cape Cod Canal after it was "tripped" or struck by the barge it was towing, Kevin Maloney said. The crew survived without injury.

As a mate on a tug going into the Cape Fear River in North Carolina, Kevin Maloney recalled when a towing cable parted in 18-foot seas and he volunteered to re-establish a connection. "I timed it to jump onto the dredge, and there were acetylene bottles flying all over," he recalled. "The adrenaline is flowing and things are happening. But you do the things you have to do. That's part of the business."

When the Sea Bear started to sink, his brother would have taken logical steps to save the boat and the crew, Kevin Maloney said. "The first thing going through your mind is 'How do you stop the flow of water coming in?' If you can't do that, the next step is get the life raft out and put on your survival suits. You're racing to do these things. You're too busy to panic."

He said his brother was very safety conscious and knew about the perils of his profession: "We always knew it could be a dangerous business."

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