Federal investigators cited a fleet boat captain’s decision to “downstream” toward an approaching line-haul tow in swift water as a leading factor in a fatal Mississippi River capsizing.
The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) also determined that the approaching towboat’s failure to hold position in the river while meeting the fleet boat contributed to the casualty, which occurred at 0755 on May 30, 2015, near Romeville, La. The towboat’s owner told Professional Mariner that it disagreed with the finding.
The incident occurred as the quadruple-screw, 1,600-hp fleet boat Miss Natalie prepared to move a 195-foot coal barge from George W Banta’s tow at mile marker 162. Miss Natalie collided with the tow and became pinned sideways against the lead barge. It flooded and sank in about 90 seconds.
Four of the five crewmen escaped including the captain, who was swept from the wheelhouse. A deck hand last seen returning to his stateroom was found dead on Miss Natalie’s second deck after the vessel was salvaged.
The 2,520-hp George W Banta was pushing upriver with nine loaded barges in a three-by-three configuration when it approached the Romeville fleeting area, where it planned to leave eight loaded grain barges. To facilitate the dropoff, Miss Natalie planned to move the port lead barge to the outside of the starboard lead barge, the report said.
Miss Natalie’s captain told his counterpart aboard the towboat he would downstream toward the tow to move the port lead barge, which was loaded with coal. The river current was as high as 5.5 mph and the report said George W Banta’s captain questioned the move.
Miss Natalie intended to move the port lead barge to the outside of the starboard lead barge of George W Banta’s tow.
Pat Rossi illustration/NTSB
“The captain of the Miss Natalie, nonetheless, assured the George W Banta captain that he had accomplished this task numerous times,” the NTSB report said. After the accident, the fleet boat captain told investigators he would make the same decision again under the same conditions.
At about 0753, Miss Natalie prepared to downstream toward the coal barge’s raked end. With its four engines astern, Miss Natalie’s speed dropped to 1.04 mph just before meeting the tow, the NTSB report said. As the fleet boat prepared to face up to the barge, a crewman noticed George W Banta’s tow still moving upriver.
“Deck hand No. 4 alerted the captain, who then backed down the vessel,” the report said. “But when they reached within about 2 feet of the port lead barge with the rudders amidships, the stern swung quickly to port, pinning the port side of the tugboat across the head of the George W Banta’s tow.”
The fleet boat captain put all four engines at full ahead and moved its rudders back and forth, then moved the engines to reverse to try and break away from the barge, the NTSB said. Those actions were unsuccessful, and Miss Natalie became pinned against the barge’s rake.
Buffeted by the force of George W Banta pushing upriver at about 2.5 mph and the downstream current pushing against it from the other side, Miss Natalie started listing at a 45-degree angle.
“The two exterior forces acting on opposite sides of the vessel, one low and one high, rolled the vessel to starboard along its longitudinal axis, thereby capsizing the vessel,” the NTSB report said.
In downstreaming, the fleet boat (1) moves upriver against the current before (2) turning around to (3) face up to the barge and (4) remove it.
Pat Rossi illustration/AWO/U.S. Coast Guard
The American Waterways Operators and U.S. Coast Guard studied downstreaming in the mid-1990s and later issued a report with operating recommendations. Between 1992 and 1996, the study attributed 1.6 towboat sinkings per year to downstreaming. Many occurred during swift river conditions and with towboats of less than 1,350 hp.
Several of the risks cited in the downstreaming report played a role in the Miss Natalie incident. They included failure to close two aft doors on the port side of the main deck, low freeboard, and performing the maneuver in the 5.5-mph current.
Western Rivers Boat Management of Paducah, Ky., owned and operated Miss Natalie through a subsidiary. The 35-year-old vessel, valued at $1.8 million, was a total loss.
Western Rivers Vice President Jason Strait said the NTSB investigator conducted a detailed review. “His attention to the details gave an adequate description of the events that occurred in the incident,” Strait said.
Chem Carriers, a Sunshine, La., company that owns the 61-year-old George W Banta through a subsidiary, disagreed with the NTSB report. A company spokesman said the towboat captain “was holding up, not pushing ahead” when the accident occurred.