Laker hits drawbridge after drunk bridge tender lowered the span

An ore carrier struck a Rouge River drawbridge after an intoxicated bridge operator lowered the bridge right in front of the vessel. The laker and bridge were damaged.

The 690-foot Herbert C. Jackson had whistled its approach to Detroit’s West Jefferson Avenue Bridge at 0212 on May 12. The self-unloader, carrying nearly 22,000 tons of iron ore for the Severstal North America steel plant in Dearborn, Mich., had nearly stopped while making the approach. As the green signal lit and the bridge raised, the captain moved forward. As the vessel proceeded, the captain saw the bridge begin to lower.

Thomas Wynne, general counsel for Interlake Steamship Co., owner of Herbert C. Jackson, said the vessel was moving about 2 mph when the captain saw the bridge begin to move downward. He radioed the mates at the bow and stern to drop anchors and ordered the engine into full reverse.

As the vessel moved closer to the 91-year-old bridge, the captain rang the general alarm to ensure the crewmembers got off the bow before impact. The bridge closed completely before the bow of the forward-house vessel struck it. There were no injuries reported among the 24-person crew.

“He was within 30 feet of the bridge when it came to a complete close,” Wynne said. “From the standpoint of damage to the ship and the risk of personal injury, it could have been a whole lot worse if the bridge had closed on top of the vessel.”

The laker suffered a 2-by-6-inch gash above the anchor pocket 15 feet above the waterline on the starboard side. Repairs were less than $20,000, Wynne said. A local crew from service contractor Purvis & Foster repaired the damage at the Nicholson dock while the vessel waited for the bridge to reopen.

The bridge was closed for about 24 hours, delaying the iron-ore shipment to the steel mill. The bridge was functional for vessels, but was blocked to vehicles.

The bridge operator was tested for drug and alcohol, as was the crew of the vessel. The bridge operator was found to be intoxicated and over the legal limit for driving a motor vehicle, according to the U.S. Coast Guard. Published reports said the bridge operator was terminated from her position with the Wayne County Department of Public Services Roads Division.

The Coast Guard is recommending a civil penalty against the operator for failure to open a drawbridge promptly and fully for the passage of a vessel, said Dave Cornett, chief of marine casualty investigations for Coast Guard Sector Detroit. The case will move to a Coast Guard administrative hearing for adjudication. The maximum fine upon conviction for the civil infraction is $25,000.

Pending repairs, the bridge was moved to the upright position to allow for traffic to move on the river, which sees five to 10 commercial vessels a week.

By Professional Mariner Staff