Bridge shears wheelhouse off bulker

As the bow of Windoc, a 730-foot-long Great Lakes bulker, began passing under a highway bridge over the Welland Canal, the three men in the wheelhouse came to a horrifying realization: the lift span was closing.

The upper part of Windoc‘s superstructure was sliced away by a bridge over the Welland Canal. The bridge also knocked off the ship’s stack, igniting a fire.

The downward motion of the bridge combined with the forward movement of the ship created a frightening visual effect. To the captain, third mate and helmsman in the wheelhouse, the bridge seemed to be swooping toward them, like some mechanical monster out of a Hollywood thriller.

They knew that in a matter of seconds, tons of steel and concrete would come crashing into the wheelhouse perched atop the ship’s superstructure, and there was nothing any of them could do about it.

“Their first thought was to duck,” said Robert J. Paterson, chief executive of the marine division of N.M. Paterson and Sons Ltd., the company based in Thunder Bay, Ontario, that owns Windoc. “Then they realized they had to run.”

The captain and the third mate fled the wheelhouse, but the helmsman chose to stay at the wheel. As the span was about to crash into the wheelhouse, he threw himself on the deck.

The bridge span hit the wheelhouse near the top of the windows and continued to descend, carrying away more steel as it went.

“It basically swept the wheelhouse, so it was just a tangled mess of metal hanging over the superstructure,” Paterson said.

When the helmsman looked up from the deck, there was nothing above him but the night sky, but he was unhurt.

The danger was not over, however. After slicing off the wheelhouse, the bridge clipped off the ship’s stack. A few moments later, a fuel tank erupted in flames.

By this time, the helmsman had evacuated what had been the wheelhouse, but the third mate did not know that and went to look for him. The third mate ended up getting trapped there by the fire. By this time, the other members of the crew had begun to respond to the fire and were able to rescue him.

The fire caused extensive damage to the ship, which is considered a constructive total loss. Amazingly, though, not a single person among the 22 crewmembers was seriously injured.

“That was our main concern – the lives of the crew members,” Paterson said.

The Transportation Safety Board of Canada is investigating the accident. Fred Perkins, the TSB’s director of marine investigations, said the agency has not yet determined exactly why the span began to close as the ship was passing underneath on Aug. 11, 2001 at about 2100.

“The bridge commenced lowering too soon,” Perkins said. “There’s no indication of a mechanical failure. It’s a human-error type thing.”

The St. Lawrence Seaway Management Corp., which operates the bridge over the canal, is conducting its own investigation into the crash. The bridge tender on duty at the time of the accident has been placed on paid leave pending the completion of the investigation, according to Sylvie Moncion, the director of communications for the company.

It took the ship’s crew and local fire departments about 19 hours to extinguish the spectacular blaze, which drew thousands of gawkers. The fire, which was confined to the stern, did not damage the 26,000 metric tons of grain in the holds.

After the collision, the stern went aground on the port side. The outer portion of the double hull was breached, but the water did not penetrate beyond the ballast tanks.

The ship was pulled free by tugs and tied up just above Lock 7 in the canal. The canal, which connects Lake Ontario with Lake Erie, has eight locks. Paterson said no decision had been made about the future of the ship. “We’ll look to see what the economics tell us,” he said.

Despite the extensive damage done to the bridge span, engineers were able to hoist it back up to the fully open position, allowing traffic to resume moving through the canal after a two-day interruption. However, the bridge remains closed to vehicle traffic, pending repairs.

“We were able to lift the bridge up and lock it in that position,” Moncion said. The seaway’s management company has not yet decided whether to begin repairs to the bridge while the seaway is still operating or to wait until it closes for the winter.

By Professional Mariner Staff