“If you keep on coming, I’m going to get you,” a pilot aboard a bulk carrier radioed to a tugboat pushing oil barges through heavy fog in Galveston Bay.
Minutes later the vessels collided and 168,000 gallons of thick bunker fuel began pouring into the bay.
The barge appeared out of a “ghost fog,” the pilot told investigators probing the March 22 crash involving the ship Summer Wind and tug Miss Susan.
Federal hearings in June revealed several factors contributed to the worst oil spill in the bay in two decades. The fact-finding could result in new rules of the road for congested shipping lanes at the terminus of the 53-mile Houston Ship Channel.
The U.S. Coast Guard conducted four days of hearings in Galveston, assisted by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB). The purpose was to investigate what led to the collision between the inbound bulk carrier and a barge being moved by the tug, operated by Kirby Inland Marine.
The two-barge tow was in the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway. It was crossing the channel shortly after noon when it was hit dead-center by the freighter owned by Sea Galaxy Marine based in Liberia. The bunker oil that oozed from a ruptured 4,000-barrel barge tank caused an expensive coastal cleanup and a raft of civil litigation. It tied up vessel traffic and cruise liners for five days.
The handymax ship’s pilot and Miss Susan’s captain testified about circumstances leading up to their collision course. Poor visibility, speed, currents and faulty communications and equipment were cited. The 585-foot ship and the 600-foot barge tow crashed in a constricted high-traffic area called the “Texas City Y.”
Tugboat Capt. Kelli Ann Hartman told the panel the oncoming Summer Wind unexpectedly increased speed from 10 knots to 12 knots, throwing off calculations that had led her to conclude she had time to cross the channel with a half-mile to spare.
Hartman, who has 30 years’ experience, said she radioed the ship to slow down to give the pilot “a chance to save face.” She said, “His response was he was too close and it wouldn’t have done no good.”
The ship picked up speed. “Oh no, this ain’t looking good,” Hartman said she was thinking as she threw the tug’s 1,800-hp engines in reverse and tried to turn to avoid the ship.
The ship’s compulsory pilot testified that he didn’t hear the tug captain broadcast her position and intention to cross the channel ahead of his vessel. Capt. Michael Pizzitola, a 40-year mariner with the Houston Pilots, was giving commands to the Summer Wind helmsman. The pilot admitted he was not monitoring a Coast Guard-required radio channel where the tug was broadcasting crucial information.
He said he was unaware that Miss Susan was a threat until he saw the tow on radar less than a mile away. Pizzitola said slowing would not have helped at that point. It would have required at least a mile to stop the ship.
“I lose maneuverability of the ship,” he told investigators. “If I got down to dead slow, I lose most of my steerage when you go into a flood tide like that. That is the only reason I kept her up on full.”
Pizzitola said a malfunctioning portable pilot unit (PPU) showed the tow traveling so slow that he believed it was hanging back to let him pass. When it appeared out of the fog a ship length away, Pizzitola said he turned hard to starboard, backing full astern, but it was too late.
The barges were carrying nearly a million gallons of tarry marine fuel. The resulting oil slick extended 12 miles into the Gulf of Mexico and fouled Galveston Island beaches and coasts for 200 miles.
The channel’s intersection with the Intracoastal Waterway has several lanes and tricky hydraulics. Among hazards at the “Y,” Coast Guard literature warns of traffic and radio congestion, currents and weather, tow sizes and ship speed.
Only one Coast Guard traffic controller was monitoring eight screens covering the complex junction at the time of the incident.
Several lawsuits were filed in the wake of the major spill. Kirby Inland sued, saying the freighter was speeding and being operated in a reckless manner. Sea Galaxy denies liability.
After undergoing temporary bow repairs and posting $10 million surety papers, the ship loaded a grain cargo and returned to Africa. Kirby Inland Marine initially is responsible for cleanup costs under federal law because it carried the oil.
Coast Guard Lt. Cmdr. Teresa Hatfield, lead investigator, said the joint hearing was held to find out what happened and not lay blame. “The Coast Guard does not assess any kind of civil or criminal penalties against anybody,” Hatfield said. “We are basically looking at the cause of the incident. Then we make recommendations to try to prevent these from happening in the future.”
Coast Guard spokesman Petty Officer Andrew Kendrick said the Coast Guard report should be available within months. Kendrick said the Port of Houston’s channel mouth is a challenge to navigate. It is one of the country’s busiest seaports with traffic up to 70 ships and 400 barges some days.
As a result of previous collisions, in 2012 the NTSB recommended that the Coast Guard develop a better traffic-separation framework in the Houston Ship Channel. The investigators recommended that mariners in passing vessels take care to communicate and to “set optimal vessel speeds that allow for timely transit while maintaining safe passage given the channel’s limited margin for error.”
The Houston Pilots and the Port of Houston have talked about taking steps to avoid casualties in the waterway’s tightest areas.
In the latest probe involving Summer Wind and Miss Susan, the Coast Guard confirmed that new vessel-traffic practices may be considered.
“If there is something that adding rules or changes would benefit for the safety of the commerce, without a major impact to transit ability, that’s something they will look at,” Kendrick said.
“The lead investigator will take all testimony and everything they got from the hearing and will review it so they can start to draw conclusions on cause for a potential fix or what might work better and be safer in the future,” he said.
NTSB spokesman Keith Holloway said his agency may issue an independent report if it has recommendations.