|Helen G. Calyx shows the damage to its starboard bow.
The operator of a crew boat on the Mississippi River may have been unable to see a down-bound towing vessel and its barges when he crossed into their path on April 13, the Coast Guard said. The resulting collision, near Angola, La., seriously injured 18 people in the crew boat.
The Coast Guard is investigating whether the operator of the crew boat Helen G. Calyx was using the vesselâ€™s aft steering station at the time of the collision. If so, his starboard view may have been blocked by a frame above a doorway that leads to the passenger compartment below, said Lt. Charles Cobb, a Coast Guard investigator at Baton Rouge, La.
The late-afternoon sun also may have been in the 26-year-old marinerâ€™s eyes, Cobb said. The 42-foot Helen G. Calyx was crossing from the riverâ€™s east bank toward the west bank at 1807 on April 13.
The aluminum Calyx was ferrying employees from the Louisiana State Penitentiary to the west bank when it collided with Charles Clark and its two barges full of heavy fuel oil. Witnesses said the crew boat departed the east bank and turned northward at first, but then suddenly steered into the path of the towing vessel.
|A projecting door frame to the right of the aft steering station may have blocked the operator’s view of the barge aproaching from starboard.
â€œThe towboat saw them coming and perceived them to be making a port-to-port passing,â€ Cobb said. â€œAt the last moment, it changed course and cut across the bow of the towboat.â€
The crew boat collided mainly with the lead barge, which is 195 feet long and 35 feet wide. The tow was traveling downriver in the middle of the channel at about 9 knots. Helen G. Calyxâ€™s estimated speed was about 21 knots.
All 18 prison employees were hospitalized with serious injuries â€” skull fractures, punctured lungs, broken ribs, concussions, lacerations, eye wounds, herniated discs and spinal injuries. Some of the injuries were considered life threatening at the time, although everyone did survive. Cobb said a slight difference in the timing of the collision could have resulted in the deaths of all 20 of the crew boatâ€™s occupants.
The impact overturned tables and flung the passengers around. The aluminum crew boat had extensive internal damage but remained buoyant. The forward hull was breached, frames were bent and the keel needed extensive repairs, the Coast Guard said.
The Coast Guard probe was still open in late May. Investigators plan to question witnesses to determine if the crew boat operator was at the aft steering station instead of in the pilothouse, where there is more navigation equipment.
Cobb said the crews often prefer the aft steering station when they are backing into a dock or casting off, but itâ€™s safer to use the pilothouse while underway. After undocking, itâ€™s probably safer to put the vessel into neutral for a few seconds and move to the pilothouse, he said.
â€œIf you are operating from the aft steering station, if you were standing there steering, a 5-foot-10 person would not be able to see any traffic on the starboard side,â€ Cobb said. â€œAnd they were steering into the sun on the east-west crossing in the late afternoon.â€
Calyxâ€™s operator had stationed a deck hand as a lookout, but Coast Guard investigators are unsure if the deck hand issued any warnings. Clarkâ€™s captain had seen Calyx moving toward the channel, but when it turned sharply into his path there was no time to back down the 113-gross-ton towing vessel and its two barges.
â€œHe realized something was amiss,â€ Cobb said. â€œIt was over within seconds, and he had no opportunity to take evasive action.â€
The accident happened at a time when the Mississippi River was at its highest in a decade â€”58.75 feet â€” 10 feet above flood stage. The current was 5 to 6 knots, versus its normal speed of about 3 knots. Visibility was good and winds were 12.7 knots, gusting to 20 knots. News reports initially suggested that the extreme river conditions were a cause of the collision, but Cobb later said that probably wasnâ€™t so.
Normally, a small passenger-car ferry carries the prison commuters across the river. In times of exceptionally high or low water, a crew boat is used instead. The Calyx crew was familiar with that duty, Cobb said.
Helen G. Calyx is owned by M&P Barge Co. of Baton Rouge, La. Co-owner Boyd Verret referred all questions to New Orleans attorney Jill Wilhoft, who refused comment, citing pending lawsuits.
The owner of the 1,200-hp Charles Clark is Blessey Marine Services Inc. of New Orleans. Ray Schaefer, a Blessey Marine vice president, declined comment, also referring to the litigation.
The barge had only a few paint scrapes on it. After the Coast Guard inspected the towing vessel and barges, Charles Clark was allowed to continue its voyage to Houston.
There should have been little question as to which vessel had the right of way, Cobb said. As the stand-on vessel, Charles Clark was obligated to maintain its course and speed.
â€œBoth parties have a responsibility to take all actions necessary to avoid a collision,â€ he said. â€œBut in the absence of a passing arrangement, the Rules of the Road take over. The down-bound vessel has the right of way. The Charles Clark was the stand-on vessel. The Helen G. Calyx was the give-way vessel (and was) obligated to keep clear of the other vessel.â€
Cobb said both Calyx mariners have returned to work.