Master of tanker accidentally shut down engine just before collision

The master of a tanker that collided with a towboat and its barges in the Port Arthur Canal, Texas, in January has told a U.S. Coast Guard investigative panel that he accidentally switched off the engine just before the accident.

The collision resulted in a 420,000-gallon spill of crude oil from the tanker — the largest oil spill in Texas in 15 years.

The 810-foot tanker Eagle Otome collided first with a berthed ship and then with oncoming barges being pushed by the towboat Dixie Vengeance. The Coast Guard held a formal hearing in March to gather facts for its casualty investigation, and limited transcripts of the testimony were made public.

Eagle Otome officers told the hearing that the ship’s mechanical and navigation systems worked properly before and after the accident. The ship’s master said he had intended to increase the ship’s speed in an attempt to regain control after it began wandering off course, but he accidentally switched off the engine. He said he ordered his crew to drop anchor. The ship’s engineer testified an emergency stop alarm sounded.

A tank barge pierced the hull of Eagle Otome after the tanker went out of control and crossed in front of the oncoming tow. A moment earlier, Eagle Otome had struck the moored cargo ship Gull Arrow, at right. (Photos courtesy U.S. Coast Guard)

Moments before Eagle Otome collided with the berthed ship and oncoming barges, the Sabine pilot aboard the inbound tanker discussed a passing arrangement with the captain of the outbound towboat Dixie Vengeance.

Tugboats hold Eagle Otome in place during the response to the collision, which caused about 420,000 gallons of crude oil to spill into the Sabine-Neches Waterway.

At first, both the ship pilot and the towboat captain were confident there was plenty of room in that section of the Sabine-Neches Waterway to pass safely. But then Eagle Otome, sailing at 6 knots, began to stray from its intended track line in the 400-foot-wide channel.

“Got it out of whack here,†the pilot on the Singapore-flagged tanker said on the radio.

“Bring it on. We should be all right,†was the initial reply. Soon after, in a surprised tone, the same voice noted, “You sure are wide.â€

Indeed, Eagle Otome had drifted to starboard, toward the outer edge of the channel. In an attempt to correct its position, the tanker overcompensated to port, crossed over the entire channel and bumped the docked freighter Gull Arrow, according to Eagle Otome’s owner and operator, AET Shipmanagement.

As the tanker rebounded from the moored vessel, a tank barge being pushed by Dixie Vengeance pierced the hull of Eagle Otome. Dixie Vengeance’s master told the Coast Guard he heard the danger signal and immediately put his towboat in astern propulsion. He witnessed Eagle Otome’s anchor drop. In contrast to the frequent pre-accident radio communication between the two vessels, he said radio calls to the ship went unanswered during the emergency.

The Coast Guard investigation may take over a year. Right after the accident, Singapore-based AET ordered its tankers to take additional precautions in the narrow waterway.

“We will start to use tugs well before the vessel enters the narrow part of the channel at the south end of Texaco Island,†AET said in a statement to Professional Mariner.

“The tugs will be on the vessel all the way to the berth,†AET said. “This is not to prejudge the outcome of the investigations, but we are taking this unilateral action because it seems prudent to take every reasonable additional precaution ahead of any findings … even though this will incur an additional expense.â€

AET said internal audit teams will visit its entire fleet to ensure crews are operating to a high standard.

The Port Arthur Canal is part of a 10-mile stretch in which oceangoing vessels share the channel with Intracoastal Waterway tows. The president of the Sabine Pilots Association, Capt. Charles A. Tweedel, said the local navigation district since 2001 has discussed various ideas for widening the channel and perhaps separating the tanker and towboat traffic.

The Coast Guard said the investigation would develop “conclusions and recommendations that will improve vessel and waterway safety.â€

The 1,400-hp Dixie Vengeance and its two tank barges are owned and operated by Kirby Inland Marine LP of Houston. The company said the lead barge, whose starboard fore corner sliced into Eagle Otome’s starboard side, was damaged.

The Coast Guard said the area was beset by strong winds and poor visibility that day, but the bad conditions cleared up before the accident.

The National Transportation Safety Board also is investigating the accident. The Orange County Board of Pilot Commissioners has formed a panel to review the incident.

By Professional Mariner Staff