Operator Dies in Weed Harvester Accident on Lake Hopatcong
Weed Harvesting Program Suspended for the Season
JEFFERSON—The Lake Hopatcong Commission announced at its July meeting that the weed harvesting program for 2020 has been suspended for the remainder of the season.
The notification comes two and a half weeks after a fatal weed harvesting accident in Crescent Cove, where long-time operator Curt Mulch died after being pinned underneath the vessel after it flipped.
According to Ron Smith, Lake Hopatcong Commission chairman, the harvester involved in the accident and the transport barge, also present the day of the accident, have been transported to the Franklin Twp. warehouse, where state officials will conduct an investigation that is anticipated to take up to six months.
HOPATCONG – On Thursday, July 2, teams from the New Jersey Forest Fire Service and New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, up righted the weed harvester involved in a deadly accident a week ago. The vessel had been laying bottom up and stuck in the muck in Crescent Cove on Lake Hopatcong.
Using two fire service trucks positioned on Hudson Avenue in the borough, the harvester was secured with a cable, and straps were attached to the vessel in an attempt to tip it sideways, then on its bottom. A combination of winching the cable and moving the trucks brought the harvester from its original location in the water to about 40 yards from the shoreline, where it tipped up right.
The operation took about 4 hours.
The DEP has not released any further information about the incident. The NJ State Police said they are investigating the “cause and circumstances” of the accident. A call and an email to the New Jersey Department of Labor and Workforce Office of Public Employee’s Occupational Safety and Health seeking further information went unanswered.
HOPATCONG – A state employee operating a weed harvester on Lake Hopatcong died Wednesday following a mishap on Crescent Cove, state police said.
Curtis Mulch, 68, was a resident of the Landing section of Roxbury and was employed by the state Department of Environmental Protection, which is charged with cleaning the lake of the dense weed growth. Crescent Cove is a persistent trouble spot.
State Trooper Alejandro Goez told northjersey.com that the accident occurred about 10:30 a.m. when the harvester Mulch was operating capsized in the weed infested cove. Mulch’s body was recovered from underneath the vessel at about 2:20 p.m.
State police, Jefferson fire and rescue, Hopatcong police and fire and AAA Dock and Marine, whose barge was used to stabilize and lift one side the overturned harvester, helped in the recovery efforts.
Hopatcong Mayor Michael Francis said he was shocked when he heard of the accident. Hopatcong Police were first on the scene, he said.
“This is a tragedy,” he said. “When you go to work every day, you expect to come home.”
He said Hopatcong police officers entered the lake in an attempt to rescue the operator. Later he said a balloon-floatation device (unsuccessfully, it turned out) was deployed in an effort to lift one side of the harvester.
Francis could not explain how the accident occurred.
There are four to six harvesters on the lake annually. They are a flat-bottomed craft, with a rotating cutter on the front, a moving belt to transfer the cut weeds to a hopper and a superstructure where the operator sits.
“This was one of smaller harvesters,” Francis said. “This is unbelievable.”
Ronald Smith, chairman of the Lake Hopatcong Commission, which is charged with maintaining the lake’s water quality and pays for the harvesting, said the worker was a 12-year veteran of the weed program.
DEP held an afternoon session for its workers and others close to the program to inform them of the accident and its aftermath, Smith said. Counselors were made available for the employees, he said.
“We have no idea how this happened,” Smith said. “We’ll have to see how it unfolds.”
Crescent Cove was heavy with weeds, he said. Residents had been using herbicides to kill weeds which floated on the surface. “It was dead weeds on top of live weeds,” he said.
Hopatcong resident JoAnn Kierney, had been walking from her home on Hudson Avenue when the accident occurred. She watched as the recovery efforts took place.
She said neighbors had greeted Mulch and another operator from the shoreline earlier in the day before the accident.
“I can’t imagine how it happened,” she said. “But it is very shallow there.”
Hopatcong Firefighter Alex Rodriguez said he was working on a project across the cove when the harvester tipped.
“I told my boss, there’s an accident, I’m responding,” he said.
Rodriguez is assigned to the Northwood Fire Co. No. 2. He also watched the rescue efforts from the shore along Hudson Avenue.
Jefferson’s fire boat responded and played an integral part of the recovery process, he said.
“It’s really shallow there, but it’s hard to figure how this happened,” he said.
Lake Hopatcong News will update this story as additional information becomes available from the New Jersey State Police and the state Department of Environmental Protection.
This story has been updated.