Correction Feb. 3: There were some words left out when reporting the amount mentioned in a city lawsuit. The city’s suit against Sound Charters seeks damages in excess of $15,000.
NORWALK, Conn. – Concerns about a Mississippi-style sternwheeler sitting on the Norwalk River bottom during low tide have resulted in an impending visit by the U.S. Coast Guard.
A Coast Guard spokesman said Saturday that Coast Guard Sector Long Island Sound Investigations Division Chief Dawn Kallen will investigate a Norwalk Police complaint that the Island Belle is sitting on the bottom at low tide in its mooring place, O&G Industries at 36 Smith St.
The spokesman could not say if the risk described by Shellfish Commission Chairman Pete Johnson – that it would be easy for the Island Belle’s hull to be punctured by a rock in its current location, given the up-and-down action of the tides – is accurate. But former Shellfish Commission Chairman John Frank said that, in his opinion, Johnson’s fears are well-founded.
“It could easily put a hole in the hull,” Frank said. “It wouldn’t take much – one rock. (Operator Ken) Hart won’t know about it until he goes onboard and finds 2 feet of water in the boat.”
Johnson expressed concerns at last week’s Harbor Management Commission meeting that the boat carries sewage and fuel oil. If a hole forms in the boat’s hull in the wrong spot, fuel oil or sewage would flow into Long Island Sound, he said.
Norwalk Police marine officer Mike Silva was at that meeting.
Hart does not own the boat, according to a document obtained through the Coast Guard website. The 97-gross register ton, three-story high boat was built in 1988 and was formerly named the Annabel Lee. It was sold for $588,000 on May 17, 2006, to Pleasure Boat Cruises Corporation of Troy, N.Y. and Fort Myers, Fla., a title abstract obtained from the Coast Guard shows. It was renamed the Island Belle one month later.
The city has filed a lawsuit in Norwalk Housing Court seeking damages from an Oct. 29, 2012 incident involving the Island Belle. The lawsuit was filed against Sound Charter Group. Pleasure Boat Cruises Corporation is not mentioned in the suit. The city seeks in excess of $15,000 in damages plus costs.
The damages stem from the destruction of the Veterans Park visitors dock, where the Island Belle was docked for more than a year, as Superstorm Sandy came in. Norwalk firefighters and police were involved in attempting to move the vessel so that its smaller side would face the wind, with the assistance of a heavy-duty tow truck. Instead, the boat blew across the river, pieces of dock trailing behind it. The dock’s pilings were pulled out of the river floor.
Norwalk Fire Department Deputy Chief Ed Prescott said in October 2012, after the storm, that it had been necessary to move the vessel because of the stress it was putting on the dock. Prescott, like other city officials, will not comment now because of the litigation.
A photo provided to NancyOnNorwalk in late 2012 shows a dock piling bent at a sharp angle as the storm comes in. Hart said Monday that the piling had been hit by a barge in August 2012. Norwalk Police Lt. Paul Resnick said Friday that there are no records of a barge hitting the dock in August 2012.
An incident report written by Harbor Master Mike Griffin and included in the Harbor Management Commission Dec. 19, 2012 meeting minutes, says the entire north dock assembly was being pushed west, toward the center of the channel, by the Island Belle at 5 p.m. Oct. 29, 2012. Griffin describes the boat’s journey across the river and then writes in the account, “Thank God there were no injuries or lives lost.”
The minutes also contain a letter from Prescott to Griffin describing the incident. Prescott said that, on the afternoon of Oct. 29, 2012, Norwalk Fire Lt. Michael Pirri called him to say that several visitors dock pilings were bent at a 45 degree angle and were in danger of breaking free in the harbor. At 4:35 p.m., Hart, his captain and a deck hand were on the boat with Norwalk Police Officer John Taranto, firefighter Michael Vinci and Pirri, Prescott said. A cable from the tow truck was attached to the boat’s bow and the attempt was made as the winds were blowing at 50 miles per hour.
But a stern chain was inadvertently left connected to the dock, Prescott wrote. That and the intense easterly wind caused the boat to break free, he wrote.
Hart said Monday that firefighters used an ax to break that chain, which he said was 3/4-inch. Hart said the strength of the chain proved the foolhardiness of the operation – the Island Belle would have stayed moored to the piling through the storm if Norwalk had left it alone, he said.
Prescott said in the letter that the tow line was disconnected to prevent the tow truck being dragged into the water. Hart’s lawyer, Albert Strazza, said in the response to the city’s lawsuit on file at Norwalk Superior Court that the tow cable broke.
NancyOnNorwalk witnessed this event. The tow truck operator pulled a broken cable from the water. NancyOnNorwalk did not see the ¾-inch chain. Photos show a cable or chain attached from the boat’s stern to the northernmost piling.
Prescott said in the letter that, as the Island Belle went across the river, it was heading toward the Police Marine Docks. “At the last minute the wind shifted, pushing the Belle against a set of dolphins that were part of a former barge dock,” Prescott wrote. “Once the Belle came to rest against the dolphins, lines were quickly secured by police and fire personnel to a pair of old cement bollards on shore.”
On Friday, there had been no further action in the lawsuit filed by the city of Norwalk against Sound Charter Group.
Neither Hart nor Strazza responded to a Saturday request for comment.
Johnson said last week that he filed a complaint with the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP). He did not return a Friday phone call. DEEP has not responded to a request for information.