The following is text of a marine accident brief from the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB):
(WASHINGTON) — On March 7, 2019, about 1430 local time, the towboat St. Rita was shifting the hopper barge LTD 14161 across the Mississippi River to the Cooper Consolidated La Place fleeting area, about 23 miles west of New Orleans, La., when the towboat struck moored barges, became pinned against a barge block broadside to the current, heeled over and sank. The five crewmembers on board abandoned St. Rita by climbing aboard LTD 14161 and were later rescued by a good Samaritan towing vessel. No pollution or injuries were reported. The submerged vessel was considered a total constructive loss and was valued at $1.5 million.
The National Transportation Safety Board determines that the probable cause of the collision of towing vessel St. Rita and tow with moored barges and subsequent sinking was the captain’s inexperience in executing a fleeting operation on a single headline in heavy river current conditions in close proximity to the head of a block.
Excerpt from analysis
The captain knew that the crew was having difficulties breaking barge LTD 14161 from its mooring at Block 2 due to the strong current, yet he started his transit across the head of the block where the current was strongest, rather than push further up, closer to the upriver Block 1, where the current was not as strong, which would have given him more room to maneuver or to fall back in the current.
The captain of St. Rita intended to directly cross the river, but to do so he had to point upstream. When he turned to starboard to avoid taking the same path as Roger D., which was crossing the river ahead, the current overwhelmed his tow and swept it onto the head of the barge block. The captain of St. Rita said that he was aware that Roger D. was nearby but chose not to call the towing vessel via VHF prior to getting under way with barge LTD 14161. His assumption that the other vessel would continue heading upriver would have been dispelled if he had called Roger D. He then could have waited to move free of Block 2 with his barge, rather than attempt to change the tow’s heading to keep clear of the Roger D. while coping with a strong current.
The captain’s sounding of the general alarm, when he felt he was losing control and before the boat listed, gave the crew additional time to muster and a warning of the dangerous situation. This action mitigated the occurrence of serious injury and loss of life.
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