After four hours of work, teams from the state Forest Fire Service and Department of Environmental Protection removed the overturned weed harvester from Crescent Cove on Friday, July 3.
The harvester was taken to the Franklin warehouse where harvester maintenance is generally performed, Hopatcong Mayor Mike Francis said, for an investigation in to what caused it to flip. Both the Forest Service and DEP Public Information Office referred questions on the investigation to the State Police PIO, which has not returned calls from the press.
The harvester capsized on Wednesday, June 24, killing Curtis Mulch, the operator.
A call came into Hopatcong Fire Headquarters at 10:28, fireman Alex Rodriguez said. The call said a harvester had flipped in the cove on the first day of the much-delayed harvesting this season.
Hopatcong Mayor Mike Francis said Mulch, 68, of Landing, had already dumped a load of weeds and was back for more. The harvester was between one-quarter and one-third full, the mayor said.
Francis said borough police were at the scene immediately, followed by the state police boat.
Lt. Michael O’Shea, public information officer for the Hopatcong Police, said the responding officers were Chief Robert Brennan, Lt. Robert Unhoch, Sgt. Anthony Cirri, and patrolmen Vincent Fullman and Daniel Capione, followed closely by patrol officers Richard Sadowksy and Taylor Gentner. The first five responders went in the water as the other officers coordinated the response from the shore.
The depth of the cove varies, O’Shea said, dipping to about 15 feet at the deepest point. The area where the harvester went over ranges from 7 to 12 feet deep and was about 40 feet off the shore.
Francis described the area as “murky and weedy.” O’Shea said the bottom is swampy and locals call it “the mudhole.” Both emphasized visibility would have been very limited.
The state police dive team was doing training at the lake and responded immediately, as did the Jefferson Township Fireboat, O’Shea said.
Jefferson Mayor Eric Wilsusen said the township fire department used to have a dive team, although not any longer. He said the fireboat has a dive ramp which made it easier for the divers to enter the water.
The police obtained the use of a barge and a crane. People watching from the shore could see the crane tip the harvester slightly and that is when the divers brought Mulch’s body out of the water and onto the fireboat after the divers pulled wet weeds from under the harvester.
The crane could not lift the harvester, however. After several tries, the state police put floatation devices around the harvester and left. Later in the week, they erected a structure over it and were planning a return to get it out, O’Shea said.
Frances noted a larger crane could not fit under the River Styx Bridge but could come across the mud flats. In the end, the forest service and DEP secured the harvester with straps and winched it up, moving it with fire service trucks on the shore.
Mulch was operating one of two large harvesters owned by the Lake Hopatcong Commission.
Normally, harvesting would have started in early May, funded by state money collected from boat user fees. Since the state Motor Vehicle Commission was closed due to COVID-19, those fees were not collected and not paid out.
Finally, the state agreed to pay the salaries of the operators, Commission Administrator Colleen Lyons said. The two counties and four municipalities surrounding the lake also chipped in for the 2020 harvesting season, albeit more than a month late. Social media was full of photos of the harvesters on the lake with cheering comments from early Wednesday morning until the accident.
A resident familiar with harvester operations said he was astounded that a large harvester could capsize. He noted the large harvesters have a “bimini top” or canopy which could have become mired in the mud once it went over.
He noted Mulch was one of the most experienced operators.