Three People Missing After Two Tows Collide

Note: an earlier version of this story was published on January 26.

A pair of towing vessels collided near Mile 123 on the Mississippi River January 26, just upriver from the Hale Boggs Bridge connecting the Louisiana communities of Destrehan and Luling.

U.S. Coast Guard Sector New Orleans received the report just after 5:30 a.m. that a collision had occurred between the ARTCO towing vessel Cooperative Spirit and the mv. RC Creppel, one of two vessels in Elite Towing’s fleet.

According to the Coast Guard, the Cooperative Spirit was pushing 40 barges northbound when it collided with the RC Creppel, pushing two barges loaded with sulfuric acid southbound. All 42 barges were set adrift. The Cooperative Spirit drifted into the bulk cargo ship Glory First’s path after the initial collision, causing another collision with the Glory First.

The collision damaged one of the RC Creppel’s barges, resulting in a release of sulfuric acid vapor into the air, and caused the RC Creppel to sink rapidly. Four crew members were aboard the RC Creppel at the time.

The crew of a good Samaritan vessel operating in the vicinity was able to recover one of the RC Creppel crew members from the water. The Coast Guard, along with the Port of South Louisiana and St. Charles Parish emergency responders, engaged in an hours-long search for the three missing crew members from the RC Creppel. That search was suspended the evening of January 27.

By January 28, the three missing crew members were identified as Shawn Pucheu, Lester Naquin Jr. and Matthew Brigalia. Pucheu’s family held a memorial for the three mariners that night in Bay St. Louis, Miss., where the Pucheu family is from.

Cody Summers, Pucheu’s 17-year-old nephew who organized the candlelight vigil, said his uncle, who was a husband, father and grandfather, was the definition of generous and caring.

“He was always willing to help you out any way he could,” Summers said. “He’d give you the shirt off his back and his last dollar. Any way he could help you, he’d try.”

Summers said he wanted to honor his uncle, Naquin and Brigalia with the vigil, while also offering a way for family and friends to mourn for the missing mariners and lean on each other during this time of grief.

“We don’t have any closure right now,” Summers said. “My aunt wanted to do something and asked me if I would come up with something we could do to celebrate all three of them.”

Summers recruited people to speak and sing at the vigil and got the word out through social media and local news media. The response was incredible. Summers estimated that more than 350 people attended the vigil, including the families of both Naquin and Brigalia, other mariners and members of the Creppel family.

A mariner who knew some of the crew members aboard the RC Creppel shared a narrative poem he composed about the close ties mariners on the river share:

On the river we are family though we are not related.

We know each other’s fathers, wives, and children.

We have camaraderie that’s unheard of in most professions.

We are more than just co-workers; we are more than just friends.

We have friends that we’ve never seen on dry ground.

And we have friends whose faces we’ve never seen,

but we know their names and voices from the radio.

“We all came together to celebrate three wonderful guys that we lost,” Summers said. “They were all great guys, and it’s a tough loss.”

Summers’ pastor, Stan Proctor, also delivered a message about faith through even the hardest circumstances.

Tom Rhoades, river chaplain for Seamen’s Church Institute, also spoke at the vigil, highlighting not only the community shared among mariners but also the hardships they face on a daily basis. The trauma of losing a comrade mariner plus the daily stress of working on the waterways can manifest themselves in an inability to focus, sleeplessness, anxiety, changes in appetite and depression, Rhoades said following the vigil.

“These are natural responses to unnatural incidents, but trauma can get stuck in our brains and, in the long term, negatively impact every aspect of our lives, including our careers and relationships,” Rhoades said. “When we have experienced trauma in the past, sometimes thoughts and emotions resurface when we hear about a similar event.

“Talking about our traumas and the thoughts and feelings that accompany our experiences is how we begin the healing process,” he added. “Our challenge is to let ourselves be vulnerable.”

Rhoades said any mariners or companies who would like a chaplain to visit a vessel can schedule a boat visit by calling 800-708-1998.

“Visits can relieve the accumulated day-to-day stress that we experience as mariners, especially during these high-water times,” Rhoades said.