Mistaken passing arrangement cited in Mississippi River tow collision

As they prepared to meet on the Lower Mississippi River, captains on the upbound pushboat P.B. Shah and downbound pushboat Dewey R agreed to a port-to-port passing arrangement. Roughly 12 minutes later, P.B. Shah’s captain noticed a problem: Their tows were both traveling along the right riverbank.

Over the next seven minutes both captains took action to avoid the collision, but their tows struck at mile marker 937 near Columbus, Ky. The incident, which occurred at 1959 on Sept. 2, 2015, spilled roughly 120,000 gallons of clarified slurry oil and caused $1.1 million in damage.

National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) investigators confirmed P.B. Shah’s captain initially proposed a port-to-port arrangement, although he thought he proposed to meet “on the two” — meaning a starboard-to-starboard arrangement.

Investigators determined P.B. Shah’s captain was distracted by various tasks as he approached a fleeting area, and that these distractions were a leading factor in the accident.

“Contributing to the collision was the failure of both captains to monitor the progress and effectiveness of the meeting proposal and take appropriate action to avoid the collision,” the NTSB report said.

Ingram Barge Co. operated the 7,200-hp twin-screw P.B. Shah, which was pushing 24 loaded tank barges in four strings from Baton Rouge, La., to an Ingram fleeting area near Columbus, Ky. Apex Towing Co. operated the 3,800-hp twin-screw Dewey R, which was pushing four loaded tank barges from Channahon, Ill., to Baton Rouge.

Spokesmen for the companies declined to comment on the NTSB findings.

P.B. Shah’s captain contacted his counterpart aboard Dewey R over VHF radio at about 1912 on Sept. 2, and they made plans to talk again about passing arrangements. Their next conversation occurred at 1940, when P.B. Shah’s captain proposed a port-to-port passing arrangement.

“In the radio exchange between the two towing vessels, the P.B. Shah captain asked the Dewey R captain, ‘The one gonna work for you? We’ll be right underneath Belmont, probably,’” the report said. Belmont refers to Belmont Point, a landmark in the river across from Columbus, Ky., and “the one” refers to a port-to-port meeting.

“That’ll be great,” Dewey R’s captain answered, and over the next several minutes his vessel maintained its position along the right descending bank.

Over the next few minutes, P.B. Shah’s captain spoke over radio with company fleet boats and by cellphone with dispatch at Ingram’s fleeting area. He also discussed upcoming tasks with a deck hand in the wheelhouse. Meanwhile, there was a background din of radio chatter.

At 1952, P.B. Shah and Dewey R were about two miles apart when P.B. Shah’s captain saw the approaching towboat along the right descending bank.

“The P.B. Shah captain called the Dewey R captain and said, ‘Got ‘em pulling around a little bit more for you there, Dewey R, if you needed two … two whistles,’” according to the report. “The Dewey R captain then asked the P.B. Shah captain if he ‘was going to be on the one’ as previously agreed.”

“No, I’m on the two, skipper,” P.B. Shah’s captain said. “(Expletive), I thought we agreed on the one, bro,” Dewey R’s captain responded.

The two captains agreed to continue with a starboard-to-starboard passing arrangement. Dewey R’s captain steered hard to port to try and bring his tow across the river toward the left descending bank. Investigators said P.B. Shah’s captain maintained steady speed and course upriver.

At 1954, P.B. Shah’s captain put both engines full astern to slow down, although the tows remained on a collision course. P.B. Shah’s lead barges, IB1947 and ING5713, hit Dewey R’s starboard barges Apex 3508 and Apex 1703. All four barges were damaged and the impact breached the No. 3 starboard cargo tank and wing void on Apex 3508, spilling oil into the river.

Over the next three weeks, the U.S. Coast Guard oversaw the accident response and cleanup. During this time roughly 3,392 tons of “dewatered oily sediment” was removed from the river, the report said.

Investigators determined both captains erred leading up to the collision. The report cited the P.B. Shah captain’s confusion about the passing arrangement and his conversations with the fleet office and the first mate at about the time he made passing arrangements with Dewey R.

As the downbound vessel, Dewey R had the right of way over the upbound P.B. Shah as well as the authority to make passing arrangements. Investigators wrote that Dewey R’s captain should have proposed a passing arrangement that avoided crossing in front of P.B. Shah.

According to the report, Dewey R’s captain should have overruled the P.B. Shah captain’s change to a two-whistle meeting arrangement using his “privilege as the downbound vessel.”

By Professional Mariner Staff