Left: The explosion ripped open the bow of MM-25. The barge, which was empty at the time, had recently been carrying crude oil. Right: A large section of MM-25’s deck was sent skyward by the explosion and landed on the barge MM-26 that was made up alongside.
The towboat Gene Neal was pushing three barges near Plaquemine, La., at about 0900 on May 4 when the explosion blew a hole in MM-25. The deck section landed on MM-26. Gene Neal was made up to MM-26 and MM-25, and the third barge, MM-22, was forward of MM-26. The blast “pretty much ripped the top of the deck off,” said Petty Officer Joshua Doud, the investigating officer with the U.S. Coast Guard Marine Safety Unit in Baton Rouge, La.
The three barges, which were empty, had recently discharged a cargo of crude oil at a refinery in Vicksburg, Miss.
Lt. Cmdr. Jeffry Simmerman, commanding officer of the MSU in Baton Rouge, said a spark from a frayed wire aboard the barge may have triggered the explosion, but he cautioned that faulty wiring is just one of a number of leads being pursued by investigators.
Gene Neal and its barges, operated by Magnolia Marine Transport Co., were heading south at mile 209 on the lower Mississippi in clear weather. The barge was in the middle of the channel and did not strike anything. Its pressure relief valves were all working properly. No fault has been found with the actions of Gene Neal’s captain.
The barge had discharged their cargo but probably retained residual amounts of crude oil and vapors. Crude oil is not particularly volatile, but vapors in the large void spaces of the barge could have set the stage for the powerful blast.
The barges were “empty but not gas-free. Anything that caused a spark could start a fire,” Simmerman said. “It can be a very violent explosion. Pressures can build up.”
Barges are generally cleaned before being loaded with a different product. However, Gene Neal and its three empties were on their way to pick up another load of crude oil when the incident occurred. “The barge had not been cleaned,” Doud said. “They were going to be loading the same exact product.”
After the explosion, the towboat pushed the barges up onto an island. Two tugboats of the Crescent Towing Co., G. Shelby Friedrichs and Louisiana, came to Gene Neal’s assistance. While Gene Neal got the undamaged barges out of harm’s way, the other two boats used their fire monitors to bring the flames under control.
No one was injured and no environmental damage occurred. The damage to MM-25 was all above the waterline. The day after the accident, the damaged barge was towed to Plaquemine Point Shipyard. Inspections there revealed that the barge was too badly damaged to be repaired, and it was taken to Greenville, Miss., to be scrapped.