High water, poorly aligned channel cited in Alabama bridge strike

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The following is a marine accident brief from the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB):

(WASHINGTON) — On March 10, 2019, at 0100 local time, the towing vessel Rivers Wilson, with eight crewmembers and pushing six loaded barges, contacted the Norfolk Southern railway bridge on the Tombigbee River near Jackson, Ala. As a result, a bridge support was shifted out of position, and the tracks above deflected. Rail traffic was suspended for 27 hours until temporary repairs were made. One crewmember sustained a minor knee injury in the immediate response. No pollution was reported.

Probable cause

​The National Transportation Safety Board determines that the probable cause of the contact between the Rivers Wilson tow and the Norfolk Southern railway bridge was the pilot’s decision to navigate through a bridge that was poorly aligned with the channel with an unfamiliar towing vessel in high water and strong current.


Rivers Wilson had not been issued a COI, nor was it required to have one at the time of the accident. Regardless of the vessel’s COI status, the Coast Guard required operators to comply with the remaining requirements in Subchapter M by July 20, 2018, several months before the accident. Compliance included maintaining the watertight and structural integrity of the vessel. The numerous watertight and structural integrity deficiencies in the Coast Guard’s post-accident inspection of Rivers Wilson indicated that the towboat was not adequately maintained. Had Rivers Wilson been inspected by the Coast Guard, these deficiencies would have prevented the vessel from obtaining a COI and being placed in service.

The pilot’s statements regarding the dikes and the currents show that he was aware of the high-water conditions and the difficulties presented by the river while transiting the bridge. The pilot stated that if he had been concerned about the current (with his six barges), he would have tied up below the bridge. The pilot had the option to leave barges below in the Jackson fleeting area and make several passes through the bridge while pushing fewer barges, but he believed that Rivers Wilson had adequate speed over ground at his planned abort point to successfully maneuver the vessel through the bridge. He was not able to accurately anticipate the effect of the high water conditions and the difficulties presented by the relatively new submerged dikes on the direction/strength of the current. His incomplete understanding of the current, in combination with the misalignment of the bridge with the thalweg and Rivers Wilson’s lower horsepower in comparison to the vessel on which he usually worked, resulted in his belief that the tow had enough speed to overcome the effect of the current.

Click here to read the complete report.

By Professional Mariner Staff