NTSB: Army Corps left out critical details before tow struck its barges

As he approached Kempe Bend in the Lower Mississippi River, the mate conning the towboat Riley Elizabeth sought guidance for transiting the nearly 90-degree curve. 

The pilot aboard a nearby U.S. Army Corps of Engineers towboat responded, telling him vessels had been “slow steering” through the bend rather than using a flanking maneuver. However, the Army Corps pilot did not mention the barge plant extending some 600 feet into the river. 

The 5,600-hp Riley Elizabeth was pushing 30 barges when it struck the plant, which had been installed a week earlier for a riverbank stabilization project. The incident occurred at about 0355 on July 18, 2014, near the town of Waterproof, La. It caused about $300,000 in damage. 

In a report issued in December 2015, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) attributed the accident to “the incomplete information provided by the Corps of Engineers about the extent of the obstruction in the waterway and the failure of the Riley Elizabeth mate to determine the extent of the obstruction before starting the turn at Kempe Bend.”

The Army Corps conducted an investigation that reached a similar conclusion. 

“The indirect cause of the accident was our pilot’s failure to tell the commercial pilot how far from the riverbank our barges extended,” according to excerpts of that agency’s report. 

As the first mate approached Kempe Bend, he used VHF radio to inquire how other tows transited the curve. Harrison and William James, two Army Corps towing vessels downriver from the barge plant, were serving as contact vessels for the revetment work. A pilot aboard Harrison told Riley Elizabeth that other vessels had been “slow steering” through the bend. 

“The mate told investigators that, based on his assessment of the radar before committing to slow steering around Kempe Bend, he did not perceive any barges extending into the river,” the report said.  
The barge plant consisted of five 120-foot spar barges, a mooring barge, a mat boat, two mat barges, the towing vessel Mary Wepfer and a 300-foot upper set barge. The Riley Elizabeth mate believed the barge plant was “folded for the night,” the report said. As the mate completed the turn at Kempe Bend, he noticed a red light and asked Harrison if it was a buoy. He quickly determined the light came from a barge extending into the river. 

“The Riley Elizabeth was about one-half mile from the outermost spar barge at that point,” the report said. “The mate told investigators he did not see the spar barges that extended 200 feet beyond the deck lights of the mooring barge. According to what he could see on radar, the barges ‘were sticking out just a little bit.’”

The mate increased speed to full-ahead in an effort to increase the tow’s rate of turn. From 0353 to 0355, the vessel gained slightly less than 1 mph to 8.63 mph, according to investigators. At this time, the vessel was turning at nearly 30 degrees per minute, but it was not enough to avoid the collision. 

The barge located second from the head of the tow on the starboard side hit the corner of the uppermost spar barge facing upriver, the report said. The impact caused two spar barges to break free. The aftmost barge and the starboard side of Riley Elizabeth hit the corner of the mooring barge that previously was shielded by the spar barges. 

“In addition, a cable broke between the mooring barge and the upper set barge, and other winch brakes slipped, which allowed several of the Corps of Engineers barges to pivot downstream until the mat boat and the Mary Wepfer struck the riverbank,” the report said. 

The accident caused about $100,000 in damage to Riley Elizabeth, owned by Strait Maritime Group and operated by Western Rivers Boat Management, and the two barges. It caused about $200,000 in damage to barge plant vessels. 

The Coast Guard issued a local notice to mariners two days before the accident. However, this notice did not say how far the barge plant extended into the river. The notice was amended after the accident to say vessels associated with the revetment project would extend up to 700 feet from the bank. 

NTSB investigators determined the failure of the federal agencies to share obstruction information with the Riley Elizabeth pilot was a critical factor in the accident. 

“Because neither the Harrison operator nor the local notice to mariners disclosed how far into the river the Corps of Engineers project extended, the Riley Elizabeth mate remained unaware of the extent of the obstruction as he approached the barge plant,” the report said.  

“The NTSB therefore concludes that the information provided by the designated Corps of Engineers contact vessels and the Coast Guard-issued local notice to mariners did not adequately warn of the waterway obstruction posed by the barge plant,” it continued. 

However, the NTSB noted the Riley Elizabeth mate should have done more to find out whether the barge plant obstructed any part of the river. 

The NTSB recommends that the Army Corps use automatic identification system, or AIS, aids on its river barges. It urged the agency to tell the public how far its projects extend into the river. 

Within three days of the incident, the Army Corps instructed its pilots to tell commercial vessels how far its barge plants extend from the riverbank, the report said. 

Greg Raimondo, spokesman for the Army Corps Vicksburg District, said the agency had seen the NTSB report and was reviewing its findings.  

Jason Strait, vice president of operations for Strait Maritime and Western Rivers Boat Management, said the company agreed with the NTSB report “other than the fact that our pilot did reach out to the standby vessel but was unsuccessful in gaining any knowledgeable information pertaining to the obstruction and layout of the unit.” 

He added, “We do believe the joint investigation with the NTSB/USCG was thorough and fair to all parties involved.”

By Professional Mariner Staff