The tugboat company whose barge struck three Gig Harbor homes Monday had previously settled a lawsuit over damages caused when one of its barge-tug combinations struck a seawall near Shelton four years ago.
Island Tug & Barge Co. was the subject of a lawsuit by David Owen in 2016. Owen alleged that the company had damaged the seawall at his former property at 1021 E. Benson Loop Road in Shelton, Mason County.
The company owns several tugboats, including the Island Chief, which struck three homes along Sunrise Beach Drive in Gig Harbor early Monday after the operator fell asleep at the helm.
Owen said it was a different Island tug, the Island Venture, which crashed with its barge into his seawall in 2016.
According to legal documents, the property fronts a bend on the north side of the Hammersley Inlet, which leads from Pickering Passage to Oakland Bay, the harbor of the city of Shelton. It is a narrow passage with swift tides and a sharp turn.
Owen said that there were two collision events, one of which he says involved the tugboat Island Venture, owned by Island Tug & Barge, that he claims made impact with the seawall on his property on June 27, 2016. He says he watched it happen from shore with his wife.
“We noticed it and thought, ‘Gee, that’s closer than normal.’ Then we heard loud and unusual noises in addition to the ground shaking,” Owen said.
Owen said he believes the barge made contact with the seawall as the tugboat was pushing it. Court documents say that after the impact, they “witnessed the tug Island Venture with a large barge directly in front of the residence” and that “the tug was not moving, although it was evident that it was straining under power, seemingly alternating between forward and reverse.”
Island Tug & Barge declined to comment on the past lawsuit.
The settlement agreement was for $50,000, with Island Tug & Barge paying $15,000 while another company operating its own tugboat in the area, the Holly Ann, paid $35,000 for a separate incident.
Owen said he was initially reluctant to sue but was worried about the effect on his insurance.
“I just figured that if they keep doing this, it might be a problem.”
In Monday’s incident, the barge ended up making contact with and damaging three homes.
Homeowner Chris Smith said he was in bed and his wife, Rhonda Schwab, was on their deck when the barge veered toward their house about 7:30 a.m.
“She started screaming, so I jumped up real quick and ran to the front window. I witnessed the tugboat coming from just out beyond those buoys at an angle,” Smith said. “You can see the line that sheared off on that piece of plywood that used to be decking.”
It was determined that the operator of the tug had fallen asleep.
“It just is an unfortunate incident that is very rare,” said Erik Ellefsen, general manager at Island Tug and Barge, which owns the tug. “It has never happened to us for the 40-plus years we’ve been in business. Policies are in place for rest periods and then those are followed. They were followed on this incident as well.”
Gig Harbor Fire and Medic One responded to the scene along with the Coast Guard and Pierce County Sheriff’s deputies. Some of the damage required stabilization and Smith estimated the damage to his property is about $200,000.