Coast Guard uses guns to sink barge after tug's fuel problem

A U.S. Coast Guard cutter towed a disabled container barge into international waters and sank it with heavy machine guns after a nearly three-day salvage effort proved unsuccessful.

A 270-foot container barge sinks bow-first after a failed salvage effort off the coast of South Florida. The Coast Guard used heavy machine gun fire to expedite the sinking. The barge began taking on water after its tugboat stalled and went adrift. (Photo courtesy U.S. Coast Guard)

The 270-foot barge began taking on water Nov. 7, 2011, shortly after its tugboat suffered a fuel problem and started drifting in 3- to 5-foot seas about 10 miles off Miami. Two days later, after being towed more than 20 miles offshore, the waterlogged barge sank bow-first with most of its empty containers still tethered two-high across the main deck. The barge flipped over, with its stern in the air before it went under Nov. 9. Salvage crews used acetylene torches to sink a half dozen or so containers that bobbed on the surface after the vessel went down. The 94-foot tugboat Santé Teo and barge were en route from Haiti to the Port of Miami on Nov. 7 with a load of 33 empty containers when the tug lost power. A preliminary investigation into the incident suggests the tug filled up with contaminated fuel before departing Haiti.

"It was believed they took on some bad fuel," said Petty Officer Nick Ameen, a spokesman for Coast Guard Sector Miami. "They were trying to keep the engine going, but eventually the vessel became completely disabled and adrift."

Both vessels drifted for several hours and nearly ran onto a line of coral reefs in Biscayne National Park. The cutter Seneca, which was passing through the area while returning to Boston after a two-month patrol, diverted to meet the stranded vessels. Seneca towed both out to sea to prevent damage to the national park and to clear the shipping lanes.

"Originally the tug was just disabled. And as we made preparations to put them in tow so that they would not drift up onto the reef line, we started noticing that the barge looked like it was potentially taking on water," Cmdr. Chris Glander, the commanding officer on the 270-foot Seneca, said in an audio release from the Coast Guard.

"As the evening progressed, it became evident that the barge was in fact taking on water, and now we've transitioned from a protection-against-imminent-danger to the maritime-environment situation, and we've transitioned now to a hazardous-navigation case," Glander said. The Coast Guard cutter Diamondback and an HC-144 Ocean Sentry aircraft arrived on scene to monitor the situation.

After an initial delay, salvage crews were hired to de-water the sinking barge, but by that point it was too late, said Kevin Collins, an operations manager with TowBoatU.S., one of the companies that responded. Heavy seas and strong ocean currents further complicated the salvage operation, he said. "The owner procrastinated for too long," said Collins. "He was in denial for almost two days before he (hired) the salvage crew. We had people on the barge and had pumps working, but it was just too far gone."

A later effort by Titan Maritime, with subcontracting help from TowBoatU.S., was unsuccessful. The tugboat and barge were operated by Miami-based Santé Shipping Lines, which operates between South Florida and ports in Haiti and Central America, according to its website. Bruno-Elias Ramos, the president of Santé Shipping, declined to comment on the incident, citing the ongoing investigation. None of the five crewmembers aboard Santé Teo was hurt during the initial incident or the salvage, and no oil or other contaminants were released from the barge or its containers.

On the afternoon of Nov. 9, Coast Guard crews abandoned the salvage effort and ultimately opened fire with .50-caliber guns to speed its demise. Within a matter of hours, the barge had sunk in more than 2,300 feet of water and Santé Teo was being towed back into port. The sunken barge has been valued at about $350,000.

By Professional Mariner Staff