After rounding a bend in the Mississippi River north of Thebes, Ill., the pilot of the downbound Michael G. Morris prepared the vessel and its 30-barge tow for another curve followed by a railroad bridge.
But as the vessels approached the Thebes Railroad Bridge at mile marker 43.7, the tow didn’t respond as expected. The third barge on the port side hit a support pier and all 30 barges broke away. The bridge and towboat weren’t damaged, but two of the barges sank. Total losses were estimated at $850,000.
The incident occurred at 0343 on April 6, 2016, during a period of high, fast water. In a report by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), the pilot said his tow got “hung up” in slack water along the left bank. NTSB investigators determined that the pilot did not correctly account for the current in the bend above the bridge, “resulting in late and insufficient use of rudder while making the turn.”
The twin-screw, 8,000-hp Michael G. Morris was en route from St. Louis to Cairo, Ill., with 30 loaded grain barges arranged six across and five deep. Each barge was 200 feet long, making the entire tow 1,180 feet long.
The town of Thebes is located below the 113-degree bend known as Gray’s Point that changes the river course from east to south. The second bend, at 35 degrees, is roughly a quarter mile north of the railroad bridge.
The U.S. Coast Guard and American Waterways Operators Bridge Allision Work Group ranked the 112-year-old bridge 47th out of 546 for total bridge strikes between 1992 and 2001. During that time it was hit 10 times despite having a 651-foot channel width.
Michael G. Morris’ pilot had traveled this section of river before but never aboard that vessel. He used a flanking maneuver to make the starboard turn around Gray’s Point, then straightened out and lined up to pass under the railroad bridge.
“The pilot told investigators that, as he approached the bridge, he tried to come right,” the NTSB said in its report. “However, the head of the tow did not swing right and instead continued to the left.”
The tow was pushing ahead at about 8 mph, helped by a current estimated at about 3.5 mph. The pilot told investigators that barges toward the front hit slack water north of the bridge. Although he put the rudder hard to starboard, forces from the current continued to move the tow to the left.
“The current acting on the after portion of the tow, with a force pivoting the vessel to the left, resisted the rudder force that the pilot applied at the stern of Michael G. Morris as he tried to pivot the vessel to the right,” the report said.
The barges drifted with the current after breaking away. Fourteen sustained hull damage, mostly in the form of insets and punctures. One sank alongside the bridge pier that was hit and another sank downriver.
ACBL River Operations was listed as the towboat’s owner at the time, and American Commercial Lines LLC was its operator. An American Commercial Barge Line representative did not respond to requests for comment.