Currents, tow configuration, lack of power called factors in bridge accident

Coast Guard headquarters in Washington has concluded that several factors, including strong currents, lack of horsepower and poor tow configuration, contributed to the fatal allision between the towboat Brown Water V and the Queen Isabella Causeway in Texas in September 2001. The accident resulted in the deaths of eight people whose vehicles tumbled into the water after the bridge collapsed (PM #61).

The Coast Guard report, issued on April 28 by the office of the commandant in Washington, represented a significant revision of the Coast Guard’s initial investigation, which placed sole responsibility for the accident on the captain of the towboat. The headquarters report does not exonerate the towboat captain. It says he failed to exercise good seamanship in preparing to make a turn in the channel as his towboat and barges approached the bridge. But the report cites other factors as contributing causes.

The initial investigation, placing sole responsibility on the captain, was completed by James Wilson, a retired Coast Guard officer who in 2003 served as the one-person formal board of investigation into the incident. However, the commander of the Coast Guard’s Eighth District, where the incident occurred, and the Marine Safety Office Corpus Christi, Texas, disagreed with Wilson’s conclusions. Wilson’s report was then reviewed by senior Coast Guard staff in Washington, who disagreed with Wilson’s conclusion that there were no contributing causes to the causality.

“One of the major reasons the report took so long was that it was difficult to get a consensus among all the people who had a say in it,” said W.D. Rabe, chief of the Office of Investigations and Analysis at Coast Guard headquarters.

No criminal charges will be filed against the captain of Brown Water V, but the Coast Guard did revoke his license after the incident. He had been a licensed towing operator for 12 years.

On Sept. 15, 2001, Brown Water V, pushing four fully loaded hopper barges single file, collided with the Queen Isabella Causeway, about 375 feet west of the channel. The causeway connects Port Isabel, Texas, with South Padre Island. The crash caused two sections of the bridge to collapse. Nine vehicles then dropped into the water.

The incident occurred at 0200, and the four other crew onboard were asleep at the time. The captain at the helm was the relief captain. He tested negative for drugs and alcohol.

Brown Water V and its tow left Brownsville, Texas, on Sept. 14, on the Brownsville Ship Channel. On the approach to Long Island, there is a Y where a channel enters on the south side of Long Island. On that day, a strong current was running from the Y channel, pushing the stern of the tow.

The vessels turned north, continuing between the mainland to port and Long Island to starboard. The tow cleared the Long Island Swing Bridge between Port Isabel and Long Island at 0145 on Sept. 15. As the head of the tow passed Long Island, currents from the flats to the east between Long Island and South Padre Island began working on it.

The vessels were then being affected by two currents: a channel current pushing the stern toward the northeast and a flats crosscurrent pushing the head barge northwest. This swinging action pivoted the stern of Brown Water V into the shallows on the east side of the channel, and the captain claimed he hit bottom. This pivoting action swept the tow west, out of the channel and into the bridge. Wilson’s report concluded that the captain was not aware of the strong currents.

At the time of the incident, the tide was high due to Tropical Storm Gabrielle. Currents were running 4 to 5 miles an hour. Three of the barges, including the one closest to Brown Water V, were square-ended box barges. The large, flat profile “would hinder the effectiveness of reverse propulsion by impeding the astern prop wash of the tug,” wrote Capt. D.F. Ryan, former Eighth District commander. The strong currents may have hampered the towboat’s ability to maneuver, Ryan wrote.

In addition, the heavier, deeper-draft lead barges were well forward of the towboat, making it harder to control the tow, according to Rabe.

Brown Water V was powered by two Detroit Diesel 400-hp engines with a 6:1 gear ratio. “The tug was not able to move the bow of the tow starboard, nor was it able to stop the tow in the current encountered,” wrote Capt. William Wagner III, the former commanding officer of MSO Corpus Christi.

Ryan wrote that a Coast Guard team concluded that a minimum of 1,350 hp would be needed to operate a towboat safely with strong currents at its stern.

By Professional Mariner Staff