David Podurgiel knew at 8 years old that he wanted to be a towboat pilot.
That was when he joined his friends in helping a neighbor, Mr. Craft, to tear down his garage.
“He would tell us stories about the river,” he said.
The garage teardown took time because after seven days, the neighbor had to go back to work on the river, but that just gave Podurgiel, now 57, more time to think about those stories.
After high school, Podurgiel joined the Navy. To his surprise, his first posting was at a submarine base in Scotland, where he was stationed on a tugboat, the U.S.S. Saugus. After serving six years in the Navy, he attended college for a couple of years, but his heart kept telling him to follow his dream of piloting in the commercial world.
Podurgiel started work with John’s Towing as a deckhand on October 28, 1991. Nearly a year later, September 26, 1992, Podurgiel came to what was then Consol Energy River Operations and is now ACNR River Towing, a subsidiary of American Consolidated Natural Resources. According to its website, the company is the largest underground coal mining company in America, producing nearly 55 million tons of coal each year, with much of it shipped by river.
For the past 31 years, Podurgiel has worked his way up the company ranks, going farther than he ever dreamed.
On June 1, 1999, Podurgiel became a pilot for the company, and he has continued to maintain his license. In September 2003, he was asked to come into the office and help some, he said. After the logistics manager took an early retirement, he agreed to give the job a try.
After a company expansion in 2006, Podurgiel transitioned into a full-time safety position.
“I started working with all the crews, catching the boats, doing whatever it took to instill our safety culture,” he said.
He is most proud of the company attaining 3½ million hours without a lost-time accident during his time in the position.
“I did the job, and I knew what it took for everybody to work safely,” he said.
Podurgiel was promoted to the company’s vessel operations manager in December 2012, a position he has held since then. He has also volunteered his time with the Waterways Association of Pittsburgh, where he served as navigation chair and, currently, is the president.
What “Pod,” as he is known to his friends, never imagined in all those years of service was for the company to name a vessel after him. ACNR has typically named boats after the company’s coal mines or executives’ family members over the years. Only three employees who have worked on the river at ACNR River Towing and its predecessors since 1880 have had this honor, he said.
In September of last year, ACNR decided to complete a major overhaul of the Donna Lee II, originally built in Houma, La., in 1986. Along with it would come a renaming. The vessel, christened May 10, is now the mv. David J. Podurgiel.
Podurgiel remembers his reaction to learning from company President Michael Somales about the name change.
“You just sit there,” he said. “You’re stunned.”
Somales, who has worked with Podurgiel for most of those last three decades, said it was an easy choice.
“We’ve been together a long time,” he said.
Besides that, he said, Podurgiel has put the company first, over and over again, and demonstrates a strong work ethic.
“He shows up on time,” Somales said. “He shows up when most people won’t.”
Somales described Podurgiel as honest, outgoing, fun and likeable.
“He’s well liked by pretty much anybody,” he said.
Podurgiel also makes it a point to help others whenever he can, without being asked, Somales said. “I just cut him loose and let him go to work.”
Podurgiel makes it a point to note that it hasn’t always been easy. He believes in being vocal about his challenges, so others who may be facing them can see there is hope ahead if they are willing to work for it. At the time of his interview with The Waterways Journal, Podurgiel, a recovering alcoholic, said he had been sober “32 years, 9 months and 6 days.” He attributes his sobriety to two factors: his faith as a Christian and the love of his wife, Laura.
That’s why, he said, he doesn’t want to be seen as bragging about the boat being named in his honor.
“The name is on the vessel, but the heart and soul of the vessel is in the people who helped me get here,” he said.
The christening ceremony May 10 in West Elizabeth, Pa., included a welcome from Somales along with an invocation from Craig Wolfley, a former Pittsburgh Steelers player and Podurgiel’s friend and “brother in Christ.”
It also involved presentation of a Bible and flag to Capt. Dean Dilegge and a bottle-breaking by Laura Podurgiel.
Thirty-six people attended a luncheon that followed at the Red Lion restaurant in Elizabeth, Pa.
The repowered and renamed mv. David J. Podurgiel was originally built as the Donna Lee II in 1986 by Superior Boat Works, Greenville, Miss., for Consolidation Coal Company. It was acquired in 2020 by American Consolidated Natural Resources. The vessel is a 56- by 22-foot dinner bucket boat with no crew quarters, galley or lounge, built exclusively for barge shifting and fleeting.
The vessel was rehabbed this year by McGinnis Inc. at Sheridan Shipyard in South Point, Ohio, Ohio River Mile 320.4. Workers there replaced the twin GM 12V-71 engines with Mitsubishi S6B3 mains from Laborde rated at 430 hp. each at 1,940 rpm., effectively raising the horsepower from 800 to 860. The engines are equipped with Twin Disc gears having a 5:1 reduction ratio. McGinnis re-pitched the 56- by 44-inch propellers to 56 by 52 inches. The propellers turn on 17-foot by 8-inch shafts in conjunction with Simplex mechanical seals and Thordon bearings.
The boat is also newly equipped with Mitsubishi 60 kW generators, also from Laborde. McGinnis further installed a custom engine cooling system from Fernstrum and a Skipper electronic-over-hydraulic steering system from Donovan. Premier Automation provided a new engine alarm system.