Two years after Luling boat accident, still no closure for families

Nikki Rodrigue was tearful, emotion born from two years of pain, uncertainty – and no closure, even to this day.  

“I just don’t want them to be forgotten,” Rodrigue said.  

On Jan. 26 of 2020, two barge towing vessels collided in St. Charles Parish near the Hale Boggs bridge, including the R.C. Creppel on which Lester Naquin Jr., Shawn Pucheu and Matthew Brigalia were aboard. The boat sank into the river, and the U.S. Coast Guard was ultimately forced to suspend the search for the three men. To date, they, nor the ship, has been found.  

Lester Naquin Jr. with his children.

Ensuring their memory lives on is why Rodrigue set up a memorial on the levee near the site of the accident, with a cross, photos and their names displayed for those passing by to see. Naquin is the father of Rodrigue’s 12-year-old daughter Breanna.  

“It’s there because I want people can remember they’re still there,” Rodrigue said. “Our men were forgotten about just a month after the accident. It’s been two years and people don’t know if they’ve drowned, if they’re still there, what happened at all. 

“So, I want people to know they’re still there. They might be a little way down, might not exactly be underneath the bridge. But that was the best place to (have the memorial) where it’s not inconvenient for grass cutters or anything.” 

Rodrigue and her daughter made regular visits to the site since the tragedy, to bring flowers and to keep the memorial maintained and presentable. Since Hurricane Ida, the two have been relocated to Tennessee for the time being, and have been unable to make those trips.  

Rodrigue took to social media, posting a photo of the memorial site and asking if those who walk the levee regularly could post a photo of the site or comment when it might need to be straightened up or maintained. A number of locals have honored that request.  

The cross was added to the site by Brigalia’s family. Stuffed animals and Mardi Gras beads left at the memorial following the tragedy are still there, including one left for Father’s Day. The names were blown from it by the winds of Ida, but Rodrigue was able to recover those.  

“A woman passed while I was out there … she told me she thinks about them every time she walks by and prays for them to be recovered,” Rodrigue said. 

As long as it’s there, it serves as a reminder of the three men.  

Until something changes, it also serves as a reminder that their respective families have thus far not had the chance to say goodbye.

Matthew Brigalia

“It’s … hard to believe a boat can just disappear. That you can’t find a boat,” Rodrigue said. “They tell you they don’t know where they’re at. We never had that closure … knowing he’s out there and was never brought home. It makes it even more sickening.” 

Perhaps the worst pain for Rodrigue is seeing her daughter forced to deal with the grief of losing her father. 

“You ask her and she’ll tell you she’s OK, but you can tell in her face that she’s not,” Rodrigue said. “Just driving over the bridge, she looks out at the water and spaces out … knowing he’s out there somewhere. We just don’t know where. 

“I just wish they’d put out more effort to find them.” 

The accident happened just before the COVID-19 pandemic began in the U.S., which caused further upheaval in Breanna’s life. A year later,

Hurricane Ida swept through Louisiana – and destroyed her father’s home.  

“It’s a lot to comprehend,” Rodrigue said. “She’s been through so much.” 

Shawn Pucheu

Naquin loved the water, but Rodrigue said his first love was no doubt his children. He would take them on trips frequently, and in fact had visited 48 of the 49 states outside of Louisiana with them. 

“Breanna visited every state but Alaska with her daddy,” Rodrigue said. “Alaska was supposed to be the summer after he died.  

“He always did what he had to do for his kids. He loved his kids.” 

While she did not know Brigalia and Pucheu nearly as well, she’s kept contact with their family members since the accident.  

“From everything I’ve seen and heard, they were great men,” Rodrigue said.  

“We all just had no closure on them coming home … I just hope they come home soon.”  

 

 

 

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