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We Asked Tugboat Workers About Their Worst Injuries

"I had my fingers ripped off. I stood there and watched the line come tight, rip them off, and then I picked them up, put them in my pocket, brought them to the hospital, and they sewed them back on."

by Dory Carr-Harris
Mar 3 2016, 7:53pm

Thomas Morton talks with Captain John Cadamuro on the latest episode of 'BALLS DEEP'

The port of New York and New Jersey is the largest on the East Coast and the third largest in the United States. Every day, goods and people pass through the dock as part of a $200 billion a year industry.

Supporting and organizing the port's yachts, container ships, and barges is one of the most classically recognizable vessels on the water: the tugboat.

Beyond being a quintessential symbol of the maritime industry, they are the workhorses that keep the shipping industry afloat, responsible for maneuvering vessels through the narrow canals of a port and towing boats like barges that have no ability to move on their own, and they've been chugging their way around New York Harbor since 1828. But what is it like to live the life of a tugboat operator in 2016, a time when you can get your burrito delivered by a drone?

In the second episode of our new VICELAND show, BALLS DEEP, host Thomas Morton embeds with the hardworking men and women of Miller's Launch, a tug and barge company based out of Staten Island that has been serving the Port of New York and New Jersey since 1977.

Whether it's removing old ship wrecks, cleaning up oil spills, moving barges back and forth in the harbor, or offering production assistance and props for film and TV, the folks at Miller's Launch eat, sleep, and breathe tugs. However, there are real safety risks associated with working this job as we learned after speaking to some Miller's Launch employees about the worst injuries they've ever seen or experienced on the job.

Mike "Mikey" Karlick, 57, Deckhand

VICE: How long have you been working on the tugs?
About ten years.

What is the sort of worst injury you've had or seen happen out on the job?
Oh, I ruined my manicure! That's how I refer to the time I lost my fingers. I had my fingers ripped off. I got them caught under a line. I stood there and watched the line come tight, rip them off, and then I picked them up, put them in my pocket, brought them to the hospital, and they sewed them back on.

When you put a line up [to hold a boat steady] and you tie it to the bow of the boat and you twist on it, it becomes rock solid. A 600-pound fat person could walk on it, it's that tight. And my fingers got caught underneath the line, and it just ripped them right off.

But I'm insane! I just sat in the hospital whining and crying, "Can I get a cup of coffee?" My hand is sticking out with my bloody fingers sticking out of it, and I'm asking, "Hello, can I get a cup of coffee over here? Somebody please, you got a cup of coffee?" Finally, somebody left me there and got me a cup of coffee.

After I got my coffee, the doctor came and put the first finger on, and when he went to put on the second finger, I made him stop, so I could turn around and grab my cup of coffee.

The actual injury took four months to recover from. I've been smart enough since then not to let anything else happen to me on the job because it's not nice when you ruin your manicure, it can definitely ruin your day. It makes you so aware how fast something that is so simple could become so tragic.

But, when I lost my fingers, I asked my bosses one question: "Do I still got a job? Or are you going to shitcan me because of this?" They all had me on the unemployment line. They all figured I wasn't coming back. I came back twice as strong, because I don't give up. Just because it happened, I should be afraid? No. This is what I chose to do. And I kind of like it, so this is what I'm going to do. Am I afraid? No. Am I aware? Yes. I am much more aware.

John Cadamuro, 57, Captain, Master Mariner

VICE: How long have you been working on the tugs?
I've been with Miller on and off since 2000. I've been working on boats since I was a kid, probably since I was four years old.

What is the worst injury your ever seen or experienced out on the boats?
I really have to think about injuries because we're very careful under my command. My worst injury was when I fell out of a crane, on a barge, on a job we were doing. I missed the bottom step on the little crane, and I fell four feet down on my back. My hard hat popped off, and my shoes came off.

I banged my head pretty badly, and it only made my back injuries that I already have worse—a herniated disk, compressed vertebrae, old age. I was recently diagnosed with TMB. Apparently, it gets worse, as you age—it's called, "Too Many Birthdays."

I saw one particular incident on the job; we were on a spud wire, which is a big piece of steel pipe that goes in and out of the river bottom. It's operated by a big winch. The winch wire backlashed when [the deckhand Mike Karlick] was working, trying to straighten out the wire, and he got hit in the face with it, and it knocked a tooth out.

We work our stern winch with what's called a "soft line"—that's the light blue line we pull out of the back of the boat to tie to a barge to secure it. That winch has about 40,000 pounds of line pull, pressure, or torque on it when it comes tight. When that line snaps, it recoils, and as it recoils, it can cut you in half. It can take your leg off. One particular story I heard was somewhere near New York Harbor. There was a mate on deck going out to tighten a line on what's called a capstan. A capstan is a vertical winch that you can put your line around three or four times to secure it tightly alongside your tow. Apparently, this fellow got tangled up between the capstan and the soft line and crushed himself to death.

These tragic things happen. But we're careful here. We don't have war stories to tell like that one that have happened to us personally.

Glen Miller, 57, CEO of Miller Tug and Barg

How long have you been working on the tugs?
I've been in the towing and marine business for close to 35 years.

What is the worst injury you've ever seen or experienced on the job?
Actually more often, we're called to other people's incidents and accidents—everything from fire to drownings to running aground to oil spills. Just within the last two weeks alone, a tugboat was towing a 150-ton crane up the coast. They wanted to go into Atlantic City, and the captain who was trying to tow the barge and make way through the inlet misinterpreted what he saw on his radar and went on the wrong side of the jetty. He basically ran his boat right up onto the beach, and he was towing a crane barge behind him. The crane barge crashed and wound up on the other side of the jetty. Luckily, it was just damages. Nobody got hurt.

Another time a 95-foot fishing tour ran aground going through the Rockaways in New York. The ship lost its main engine and was in distress and was being pushed up on the beach, so the Coast Guard came out to try and give him a hand. But the Coast Guard got in a lot of trouble and wound up rolling over the boat, capsizing with five people on board. Luckily, they all got out, and they swam to shore. We then got the job to tow the Coast Guard boat to safety and then work on the salvage effort to remove all the fuel and water that was on board the fishing boat—some 15,000 gallons.

We were also involved in the recovery effort for TWA Flight 800. That was the airplane that went down off of Long Island. It just so happens, that's where I go shark fishing every Wednesday with my dad, and six hours before the flight went down, we had just finished up and were heading home. I got the news that this airplane crashed into the water and had blown up, so I just turned around, and took three or four boats with me. You know, the whole ocean was on fire. We were involved in the recovery of the all the parts—both plane and human unfortunately.

We were also involved with the rescue effort for 9/11. When the planes hit the Twin Towers, we sent about 15 boats up there—because we realized that Manhattan was an island, and no one knew what was going to happen. So we started doing an evacuation of Manhattan right up to the sea wall. After we moved a bunch of people, along with the whole tugboat community, we then started transporting the rescue personnel from New Jersey across the river. We helped organize some 300 tractor trailers that were all donated by various big companies for support for the firemen and the ironworkers. We were basically brining them back and forth from Jersey City to Manhattan, so the response could keep going.

Theses interviews have been edited and condensed for clarity.

Follow Dory Carr-Harris on Twitter.

To find out more about what's it like to live and work on a tugboat every day, check out "Tugs," the second episode of BALLS DEEP, airing today on VICELAND at 9 PM EST. Watch all the episodes of our shows now at VICELAND.com