Failure to pin construction barge’s spuds caused fire fatal to six crew, NTSB says

The failure of Athena Construction to require its crews to pin spuds securely in place on its barges before getting underway was the cause of an Oct. 12, 2006, explosion that killed six, the National Transportation Safety Board has concluded.

At about 1155 on Oct. 12, the towing vessel Miss Megan, operated by Central Boat Rentals Inc. of Morgan City, La., was pushing two barges in the West Cote Blanche Bay oil field in Louisiana. Construction barge Athena 106 was tied to the port side of the unmanned deck barge IBR 234. Miss Megan was secured astern of IBR 234, pushing both barges. The 110-foot-long Athena 106 was owned and operated by Athena Construction, also of Morgan City; the 120-foot IBR 234 was owned by Inland Barge Rentals of Berwick, La. Miss Megan was crewed by a licensed master and a deck hand; Athena 106 was crewed by a foreman, a crane operator and four barge hands.

While the towing vessels and barges were underway, the five-ton aft spud on Athena 106 came loose from its raised position, dropped into the water and struck a submerged, high-pressure natural gas pipeline. The gas ignited and created a fireball, which engulfed the vessels. Miss Megan’s master was killed along with Athena 106’s barge foreman, crane operator and two barge workers. The deck hand of Miss Megan and one barge worker survived. (See PM # 102 Feb./March 2007.)

The NTSB, in a June 14 report, announced that the failure by Athena Construction to require its crews to pin the spuds on its barges allowed the sudden release of Athena 106’s aft spud, which ruptured the pipeline. A contributing factor was the failure of Central Boat Rentals to require, and the master to check, that the barge spuds were securely pinned before getting underway.

When the two spuds on each barge are in the raised position, there are three safety features to prevent the spuds from dropping or slipping, according to the NTSB report.

Both the forward and aft spuds on the barge are controlled through a twin-drum winch.

Each drum controls a single spud, and each drum has a foot-brake pedal and a hand lever to control the speed of the spuds. The foot brake is the first safety feature; the second is a steel pawl that fits into a notched ring on the outside of the drum to keep the drum from turning if the brake fails. Finally, a 36-inch-long steel pin can be inserted directly through the fully raised spud so the spud won’t fall if the winch or cable fails.

On Oct. 12, only the foot brakes were used to hold both spuds in place during transit. Neither the pawl nor the securing pin was used on either spud to make sure they remained locked during transit, according to the report. The NTSB found the winch on Athena 106 had no defects or abnormalities. The spud winch cable was free of damage or fraying, and both spud winch cables had been replaced two months before the incident.

The NTSB report also noted that no regulatory agency inspects the operations of uninspected barges like Athena 106 and that U.S. Coast Guard authority only extends to examining lifesaving and firefighting equipment. There are over 4,000 deck barges in the country, and Coast Guard figures show that 305 people were killed on barge/tow operations between 1997 and 2006, according to the report. The NTSB recommends that new towing vessel inspection regulations being drafted by the Coast Guard include the establishment of safety management systems for all towing companies. The new rules will add oversight for vessels under tow that are not subject to inspection.

To view the NTSB report online, go to:

By Professional Mariner Staff