Barge loaded with bombs grounds after running over navigation aids

A barge carrying 9,000 pounds of military ordnance and other cargo ran aground and took on water in Washington's Rosario Strait after hitting a navigation marker.

The 322-foot St. Elias was being towed south by the 101-foot tug Henry Brusco at 0444 on Oct. 10 when the barge struck Belle Rock, about five miles southwest of Anacortes, the U.S. Coast Guard reported. The impact ripped a 10-foot-by-10-foot hole in the vessel, which was en route from Valdez, Alaska, to the U.S. naval facility at Indian Island, Wash.

In addition to ordnance — bombs with bursting charges, according to the tug's manifest — St. Elias was carrying containers loaded with building materials, vehicles and canned and frozen fish. The barge is owned by Samson Tug and Barge of Sitka, Alaska, which chartered the tug from Brusco Tug & Barge of Longview, Wash.

The Coast Guard reported that the ordnance remained stable during the grounding, although a 2,000-foot safety zone was established in the area around Belle Rock until the barge was refloated.

"The impact with the rock caused the hole," said Chief Petty Officer Robert Lanier, spokesman for the Coast Guard's 13th District. "The was no explosion at any time during the transit or (barge) removal operations."

Seas were calm at the time of the incident, with 5-knot winds and unrestricted visibility, the Coast Guard reported. St. Elias grounded about 15 minutes before high tide in about 7 feet of water.

Lanier said that prior to striking the rock, the barge was towed over a marker that was actually two navigation aids combined: the Belle Rock Light and the Belle Rock Sector Light. Both were destroyed when the barge grounded, he said.

While awaiting the next high tide to refloat the barge, U.S. Navy technicians and a safety inspector from Coast Guard Sector Puget Sound boarded the vessel and determined that the ordnance was secure. Divers from Global Diving & Salvage inspected the hole in the forward starboard hold, and a containment boom was deployed around St. Elias as a precaution.

At about 1500, the barge floated free of Belle Rock. It was then towed stern-first to Indian Island by Foss Maritime's 100-foot tug Delta Lindsey, with Henry Brusco assisting. The 87-foot Coast Guard cutter Swordfish from Port Angeles, Wash., escorted the tugs.

After the ordnance was unloaded at Indian Island, St. Elias was towed to Seattle to complete the delivery of its commercial cargo, said Mike Drobka, cargo operations manager for Samson Tug and Barge.

"Since only one of the barge's independent watertight voids was breached, no immediate repairs were necessary for further transit," he said.

St. Elias was then towed to Vancouver, British Columbia, for dry dock repairs. The barge has not returned to service and a monetary estimate of the damage has not been completed, Drobka said.

Tests for alcohol and drugs were administered to the four crewmembers aboard Henry Brusco, with the Coast Guard determining that neither were factors in the grounding. The incident remains under investigation.

No injuries or pollution were reported.

Rich Miller

By Professional Mariner Staff