Coast Guard cites mistakes of master of towboat swept over dam

The master of a towboat that was swept over a dam near a lock on the Ohio River in January 2005 made several mistakes in judgment that contributed to the fatal accident, including transiting the lock without the help of an assist tug and entering a restricted area during a time of extremely high water, the U.S. Coast Guard has concluded.

The Coast Guard also cited physical problems with the tug and vague instructions by the company concerning the assist tug as factors in the accident, which killed four of the 7 people aboard.

The investigation into the sinking of the towboat Elizabeth M and its six barges at the Montgomery Lock and Dam on the Ohio River (mile marker 31.7) concluded in October 2007. Immediately following the accident on Jan. 9, 2005 the tug master’s license was suspended for 18 months and he was placed on probation for an additional 18 months.

Elizabeth M was bound upriver for Pittsburgh with six loaded coal barges when it transited the lock. As the tow was exiting the lock chamber, powerful currents caught the lead barges, pushing them downstream toward the dam. While attempting to recover the barges, the towboat was swept over the dam and sank. Four members of the crew were killed in the accident. The barges sank upstream of the dam.

At the time of the accident, river currents were exceptionally strong, 11 to 13 knots, or approximately four times normal velocity, making vessel operations on the upper Ohio River hazardous.

The master of Elizabeth M had received vague handwritten sailing instructions from the vessel’s owner/operator, Campbell Transportation Co., of Charleroi, Pa., that an assist tug, Richard C, “will help” because of the swift water conditions. Rather than wait for the assist tug, Elizabeth M and its tow proceeded to the Montgomery Locks. When Elizabeth M lost control of the barges at the lock, the master pursued the barges into a restricted area just above the dam in an attempt to recover them. That decision placed the safety of the tug and its crew in jeopardy, the Coast Guard said.

The Coast Guard also found a number of deficiencies aboard the vessel once the tug was salvaged. According to the investigation, “Modifications were made to the Elizabeth M that were not completed in accordance with the manufacturer’s specifications or good marine practice. The modifications reduced the vessel’s survivability and degraded the vessel’s propulsion system capabilities.”

Specifically, a survey following the accident noted pin holes and fractures in the forepeak that appeared to be a result of hull wastage, two cutouts approximately 25 by 25 inches on the main deck in the vicinity of the steering and an open grating replacing approximately 30 inches of the stern section of the deck — all modifications which compromised the vessel’s watertight integrity. The vessel was also found to be over-ballasted and hatch dogs to be unserviceable, making it susceptible to flooding. Mechanically, engine governors had been installed, limiting speed to 1,200 rpm, insufficient to overcome the currents in the restricted area above the dam.

By Professional Mariner Staff