Failed thruster, missed command cited in collision between tanker and barge

Cleanup crews deploy a boom to contain oil spilled from the tanker Chemical Supplier in the Houston Ship Channel. About 10,500 gallons of fuel leaked after the ship struck a barge. (Courtesy U.S. Coast Guard)

Thruster failure and misunderstanding of a pilot’s command may have caused a chemical tanker to strike a moored barge while turning around in the Houston Ship Channel. About 10,500 gallons of fuel oil spilled.

The accident occurred at about 2100 on Sept. 25, 2009, at Brady’s Landing as the 458-foot Chemical Supplier attempted to turn near the Interstate 610 Sidney Sherman Bridge. The tanker’s port stern quarter struck the barge Buffalo 251 above the barge’s waterline. Chemical Supplier’s No. 3 fuel tank was punctured 5 feet above the waterline. The 195-foot barge had a 2-foot-by-4-foot gash.

Heavy No. 6 fuel oil spilled into the waterway from the tanker. Mechanical failure and human error may have contributed to the accident, said Steve Huttman, director of marine operations for Galveston-based G&H Towing, whose tugboat assisted the tanker at the time.

“We only had one tug because the ship has a bow thruster,” Huttman said. “But there was a bow thruster failure while the ship was turning. Also, we were told that the pilot had called for ‘slow ahead’ and instead got ‘slow astern.’”

Three Buffalo Marine Service barges were moored light with Buffalo 251 on the outside, said Tom Marian, general counsel for Houston-based Buffalo Marine.

“The 251 was slammed into the middle barge by the stern of the tanker,” Marian said. “We estimate the damage to the barges to be about $120,000. We always moor light barges on the outside to protect the inside barges, and it worked as planned.”

There is disagreement as to whether such ships typically turn around in that area. Marian said there is a turning basin just north of where the accident occurred. A three-mile portion of the Houston Ship Channel was closed from 2200 on Sept. 25 to 1245 on Sept. 28.

“This was not a typical maneuver and there was a pilot onboard and a tug assisting,” Marian said. “Our company was severely impacted by the accident” because of the resulting channel closure.

Huttman said that in his opinion the turn was not an unusual maneuver for the area, but was “exacerbated by the number of barges moored there.” The U.S. Coast Guard confirmed that the turn was possible.

“This was a typical maneuver for the area, and theoretically, yes, there was enough room to complete the maneuver,” said Coast Guard spokesman Petty Officer Richard Brahm.

The Coast Guard was still investigating the cause in late November. Therefore, Brahm declined to comment on mechanical failures, pilotage or the tug assist. He said weather was not a factor.

Cleanup efforts resulted in the recovery of 51,563 gallons of an oil and water mixture and 380 yards of oily solids. In all, 19 vessels were affected by the closure. The Coast Guard said the accident would have had more severe economic consequences had it occurred down-river where traffic is heavier.

Chemical Supplier, registered in the Marshall Islands, is owned by the German shipping company MS “Mabuhay” Schiffahrtsgesellschaft mbH & Co. KG. Its operator is OMCI Shipmanagement GmbH & Co. KG. Neither company responded to e-mails requesting comment. The Houston Pilots also didn’t respond.

John Snyder

By Professional Mariner Staff