Containers, including one with chemicals, fall off oceangoing barge

An oceangoing barge sailing through rough waters off the Florida coast lost more than two dozen shipping containers, including one loaded with potentially hazardous wet-cell batteries. 

Acid in those batteries can cause chemical burns if it comes into contact with skin, and the Coast Guard warned beachgoers to avoid containers that might wash up on shore. The agency issued hourly marine safety broadcasts urging mariners to be on the lookout for floating boxes. 

“The concern was, if the container was still floating and washed up somewhere and the batteries inside had somehow leaked and the beachgoers went out and started picking up the batteries, that they could get acid on their skin or hands,” said Chief Petty Officer Ryan Doss of Sector Miami.

The containers fell from the 343-foot barge Columbia Elizabeth sailing under tow from the 6,860-hp tug Capt. Latham, operated by Smith Maritime. The vessels were en route from Jacksonville to San Juan, Puerto Rico, when the boxes fell at about 0400 on Dec. 6, according to Capt. Latham Smith, president of Smith Maritime.  

“Upon observation of the barge at first light, boxes were observed hanging over the port side at the fourth tier aft, slightly aft of midships. Upon close inspection it was observed that perhaps 10 to 12 boxes were missing, and others followed in collapse on deck, domino style,” he said in an email.  

The Coast Guard is still investigating the incident, but a supervisor with Marine Safety Detachment Lake Worth said finding the exact cause could prove challenging. 

“It would be extremely difficult to determine because we didn’t have eyes on the scene,” Coast Guard Lt. Carlos Jaramillo said. “It could have been any number of things that failed, but you kind of have to be there to see the actual part that failed.”

The vessels were traveling at the edge of the Gulf Stream in sea conditions that Smith described as “a little bouncy” but not unexpected for that time of year. He declined to comment on possible causes of the shifting cargo.

Weather data from a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration buoy located about 50 miles east-northeast from Port Canaveral recorded 10- to 13-foot seas for much of the day on Dec. 5 and early Dec. 6. Winds ranged from 20 to 35 mph during that period. 

Capt. Latham was hauling the barge under charter by TOTE Maritime. Smith Maritime, based in Green Cove Springs, Fla., makes twice-weekly runs to Puerto Rico for the company. Through a subsidiary, TOTE operated El Faro, which disappeared on Oct. 1 while sailing from Jacksonville, Fla., to Puerto Rico loaded with containers and vehicles. Thirty-three people died in the incident. 

Columbia Elizabeth, operated by Columbia Coastal Transport, was carrying 335 containers stacked in seven rows. The boxes contained a mixed cargo that included groceries, cars and retail products, according to Michael Hanson, a TOTE spokesman. 

In all, 25 containers fell overboard and another 30 were damaged, he said. The barge sustained minor damage. The crew did not witness the containers falling overboard, which occurred between Port Canaveral and Palm Beach. 

“There is about 200 feet of towing line between the tug and barge, and it’s dark, and you’re not going to be able to see a whole lot,” Jaramillo said. 

The crew diverted to Palm Beach after realizing the cargo problem early on Dec. 6, the Coast Guard said. In the days that followed, Coast Guard air crews searched Florida’s central coast between Port Canaveral and Palm Beach for the containers, which were “accounted for” but not recovered, Coast Guard Petty Officer Mark Barney said. 

The container with wet-cell batteries is presumed to have sunk, Doss said. The batteries do not pose a serious hazard to the environment. 

TOTE Maritime runs regular cargo service between the United States and Puerto Rico, a U.S. territory. The company has faced intense scrutiny and numerous lawsuits stemming from the El Faro tragedy. Hanson would not say whether the chartered barge run was launched after El Faro was lost. 

“The Columbia Elizabeth run was added in response to normal changes in capacity requirements,” he said in an email. 

Smith said the cargo was re-stowed on a replacement barge in Palm Beach, and Columbia Elizabeth returned to Jacksonville for repairs. 

By Professional Mariner Staff