Houston Ship Channel closed after barge brings down electric transmission tower

A tow in the Houston Ship Channel slammed into an electrical tower, which broke off its base and fell on top of a barge, forcing a major channel closure that lasted three days and stranded 64 ships.

The towboat Safety Quest was pushing three barges containing scrap metal Oct. 3, 2010, when the lead barge rammed the high-line steel structure near Baytown, Texas. The tower, constructed on a concrete base outside of the main shipping channel, separated from its pedestal and toppled onto the tow.

The lead barge of the towboat Safety Quest took out an electrical tower in the Houston Ship Channel. The Coast Guard said the accident happened after the towboat steered too far to starboard. (Photo courtesy U.S. Coast Guard/Petty Officer 2nd Class Prentice Danner)

The crash happened in clear weather at 0555. Safety Quest was headed outbound toward the Intracoastal Waterway on a voyage from the Greens Bayou fleeting area to New Orleans. The tow was 150 feet to the starboard side of the channel, where there is still plenty of safe water, but the pushboat strayed too far to starboard, said Master Chief Jeffery Prince, the U.S. Coast Guard’s investigating officer.

Each barge was 200 feet long and 35 feet wide. The three barges were strung lengthwise ahead of the 1,800-hp towboat, which was sailing at about 6 knots. The lead barge plowed straight into the tower.

“It hit it right down the middle,” Prince said. The tower “sheared off at the base, and it was sitting on top of the lead barge.”

The Houston Ship Channel is 530 feet wide in that area. Visibility was clear, the wind was 20 mph and there was a slack tide.

“The tower would have been to their starboard side if they had navigated the area properly,” Prince said. “There were no mechanical problems reported. Everything was working properly … and they had proper manning.”

Each barge contained 1,500 tons of scrap metal. The Coast Guard is still investigating whether anyone on the tow saw the tower and took evasive action.

“You’re talking about a lot of weight and forward motion,” Prince said. “It takes a lot to slow it down, and that’s a lot of force.”

Safety Quest is owned by AEP River Operations, headquartered in St. Louis, Mo. The company didn’t respond to a request for comment.

The Safety Quest crew was safely evacuated to another vessel. The tower, which was temporarily not transmitting electricity at the time of the crash, is owned by CenterPoint Energy. The utility company could not provide an estimated cost for the repair of the tower.

Prince said the Coast Guard is still investigating whether the structure was properly lit. The collision destroyed some evidence that would have addressed that question, he said.

“He pretty much ran over everything that would have been lit when he sheared it off,” Prince said. Still, video of the scene seems to show that at least one light was functioning even after the collision. More analysis is necessary, he said.

The shipping channel was completely closed for three days, causing major delays for the petroleum industry and other ships. Houston-based Big John Marine’s harbor service derrick barge, with 500 tons of lifting capacity, responded. Big John first stabilized the fallen tower and eased the stress on the power lines and later removed the damaged structure after CenterPoint had reeled in all 14 lines.

The Houston Pilots Association said the channel was reopened on the morning of Oct. 6. By then, the backlog had grown to 45 inbound ships and 19 outbound ships.

Prince said the electrical tower is close enough to shore that towboats can’t pass it to port. Crews must always be alert in that area and avoid shallow spots. Near the tower, the water is only 10 to 12 feet deep.

“They’re able to operate outside the channel, but they have to be very careful,” Prince said. “He was way out. It’s incumbent upon the person navigating to be aware of what’s on the side of the channel.”

Dom Yanchunas

By Professional Mariner Staff