Maritime Casualty News, March 2017

Towboat sinks at Louisiana fleeting area

The U.S. Coast Guard is trying to determine why a towboat tied alongside a barge sank at mile marker 363 in the Mississippi River.

Authorities learned at about 0300 on Feb. 26 that Sonny J’s stern had submerged while tied up near a Vidalia, La., fleeting area. The vessel had roughly 4,000 gallons of diesel on board.

Personnel from Coast Guard Marine Safety Unit Vicksburg and an oil-spill response team reached the towboat later that morning. Crews laid boom around the vessel, placed sorbents in the water and plugged the towboat's vents. Coast Guard spokesman Brandon Giles said light sheening was reported inside the boom.

Crews from Big River Shipbuilders & Salvage of Vicksburg, Miss., salvaged the vessel a week after it sank. Vidalia Dock and Storage of Natchez, Miss., owns the 1,200-hp Sonny J, which was moved to dry dock for repairs.

Coast Guard detains two bulkers in Northwest

The Coast Guard detained two Panama-flagged bulk carriers late last month after finding “substandard safety issues” during Port State Control exams on the Willamette and Columbia rivers.

Port State Control teams found SOLAS deficiencies aboard the 590-foot Atlantic Ruby on Feb. 23 in Portland, the Coast Guard said. Inspectors also found the fixed fire suppression system was not serviced properly and the time-delay system that allows crew to escape a compartment before the system activates was not connected.

Also on Feb. 23, a separate Port State Control unit examined the 609-foot Amber L in Kalama, Wash., and found “cooling water leaking from the main engine and multiple issues with the vessel's steering system,” among other discrepancies.

Port State Control enforces U.S. regulations on foreign-flagged ships that enter U.S. waters with the goal of reducing death, injuries, property damage and environmental harm. “When vessels are identified as not being in substantial compliance with applicable laws or regulations, the Coast Guard imposes controls until the conditions have been rectified and the vessels are brought into compliance," the Coast Guard said in a prepared statement.

Atlantic Ruby was released Feb. 24 and Amber L was released Feb. 26, according to a Coast Guard spokeswoman.

Hearings convened on Caribbean Fantasy fire

The Coast Guard has convened hearings into the Aug. 17, 2016, fire aboard Caribbean Fantasy near San Juan, Puerto Rico.

The Panama-flagged cargo-passenger ferry was sailing between Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, and San Juan when a fire started in the engine room and spread to other compartments. All 511 passengers and crew made it off the 561-foot vessel, although some reported injuries after returning to shore.

The hearings began March 20 in San Juan and are expected to end March 28. The National Transportation Safety Board, which is conducting a separate accident investigation, also will participate in the hearings.

“(The hearings) will focus on the cause of the marine casualty, the adequacy of firefighting protection systems, regulatory compliance including any physical or design concerns, adequacy of the vessel’s safety management system and evacuation procedures, and the Coast Guard’s mass rescue operation and procedures,” the agency said.

The district-level hearings into Caribbean Fantasy mirror the Marine Board of Investigation (MBOI) convened recently to examine the El Faro tragedy. The process is essentially the same, although the sessions differ by who convened them, Coast Guard spokesman Eric Woodall said.

Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Paul S. Zukunft called for the El Faro MBOI, while District 7 Commander Rear Adm. Scott Bushman called for the Caribbean Fantasy review. MBOI hearings are generally reserved for the most serious incidents, according to the Coast Guard.

The hearings can be viewed here:

Casualty flashback: March 1968

SS African Star was downbound on the Mississippi River on March 16, 1968, when it collided at 0340 with a loaded oil barge being pushed upriver by the towboat Midwest Cities. The accident at mile marker 46 caused a fire on the barge Intercity No. 11, which then spread onto the freighter. Nineteen crew and two passengers aboard the ship died in the blaze, and another 31 crew and nine passengers were hurt.

Pilots were aboard both vessels, although each gave investigators a different version of events, according to the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB). The pilot aboard the 850-hp Midwest Cities recalled sounding the whistle once and that the pilot aboard the 469-foot African Star responded in kind, suggesting a port-to-port passage. African Star later sounded two blasts, and Midwest Cities’ pilot again sounded one.

The pilot aboard African Star said the position of the two vessels in the river appeared better suited for a starboard-to-starboard meeting, and he sounded two whistles as the vessels were within about two-thirds of a mile. African Star’s bridge crew never heard Midwest Cities’ one-whistle response to their two. The lack of a common frequency prevented bridge crew from speaking over radio.

Both pilots attempted evasive maneuvers, but it was too late to avoid a collision. African Star slammed into Intercity No. 11 on its port side. The barge carried crude oil, which spilled across the water and ignited, spreading flames onto the cargo ship. Aluminum cargo containers on African Star’s deck melted, and cargo holds burned for days after the accident.

The NTSB determined the probable cause stemmed from the lack of an agreed-upon meeting arrangement. 

"The methods of conveying their intentions prescribed by the Inland Rules of the Road did not succeed in this case," the NTSB report said. "Whistle signals and the target aspect of the navigation lights should have alerted the pilots of these vessels earlier that one vessel was planning a port-to-port passage, the other a starboard-to-starboard. … This case illustrates the fact that whistle signals are not themselves a reliable means of communicating vessels' passing arrangements or turning intentions."

The Coast Guard, which also investigated the accident, said proper accident reconstruction was impossible due to the pilots’ differing versions of events leading to the collision. However, the Coast Guard determined African Star’s pilot perhaps violated the Rules of the Road by failing to establish passing arrangements in a timely manner.

By Professional Mariner Staff