NTSB: Dredge hit Texas gas pipeline, causing fire that killed four

Tugboat Ted C. Litton
Tugboat Ted C. Litton
The Suderman & Young tugboat Ted C. Litton responds to the fire aboard Waymon L. Boyd on Aug. 21 in the Corpus Christi Ship Channel. Four dredge crewmembers died and six others required treatment at a San Antonio burn center.

Four crewmembers died and at least six others were injured when the dredge Waymon L. Boyd became engulfed in fire while working in the Corpus Christi Ship Channel.

State and federal agencies are still investigating the incident, but the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) believes the 152-foot cutterhead suction dredge struck a submerged gas pipeline. The impact ignited a massive inferno visible throughout the port.

“A geyser of gas and water erupted adjacent to the vessel,” the NTSB said in preliminary findings released in late September. “Shortly thereafter, the gas plume ignited and fire consumed the vessel and surrounding shoreline.”

There were 18 people working on the dredge on Aug. 21 when it reportedly struck the pipeline at about 0805. Two deceased crewmembers were found separately the morning after the incident; two others were found inside the sunken dredge on Aug. 24. The four victims have not been publicly identified. Six surviving crewmembers suffered serious burns that required treatment at a San Antonio burn center.

The NTSB and other authorities have not released a cause for the incident, nor have they explained how the dredge made contact with the pipeline. A spokesman for vessel operator Orion Marine said the company’s practice is to identify and mark pipelines located near active dredge sites before a project begins. 

“We do not operate our dredges within 10 to 15 feet of any pipeline, bulkhead or anything related to it,” said Marshall DeLuca, vice president of corporate business development for Orion Group Holdings, during a news conference soon after the fire. Houston-based Orion Group is the parent company of Orion Marine.

DeLuca, in a separate statement issued to Professional Mariner, acknowledged the NTSB’s preliminary findings as well as the ongoing investigation. He said the company is cooperating with investigators.

“Orion took all standard and necessary safety precautions and actions prior to and during the dredging operations,” he said. “Orion is eager to receive the outcome of this investigation to not only understand what happened, but to also help our teams, and the industry, safeguard from a tragedy like this ever occurring again.”

Orion, he said, “will refrain from making any further comment until the investigation is completed.”

The NTSB said Waymon L. Boyd was working on a dredge project alongside the EPIC Marine Terminal, within the Port of Corpus Christi, when it struck the 16-inch liquid propane pipeline. Enterprise Products Operating LLC owns the pipeline, known as TX219, that was installed in 1968.

“An underwater segment of the pipeline was in close proximity to the area where Orion Marine Group was conducting dredging operations,” the NTSB said. “At the time of the accident, the Enterprise Products pipeline controller received a low-pressure alarm on pipeline TX219.”

Three days after the incident, divers found “evidence of mechanical damage and two wall breaches in the pipeline,” the NTSB said. “Waymon L. Boyd’s cutter dredge head has been recovered and is being transported to a secure location for examination.”

The gas explosion caused a fireball that ignited sections of Waymon L. Boyd. Multiple tugboats assisted with the fire response, which succeeded in extinguishing the flames by about 1600. The fire reflashed that evening at about 2000 but burned out within 90 minutes. The dredge sank shortly afterward within the navigation channel.

A Coast Guard helicopter crew hoisted two injured crewmembers to safety soon after the explosion. Both were taken to a nearby hospital with unspecified injuries. It is not clear exactly how many of the 18 crew were injured during the incident, or how the remaining crew escaped from the dredge. 

The Coast Guard referred specific questions about the incident, including the number of injuries and salvage details, to Orion. The service confirmed that a portion of the dredge was salvaged on Aug. 24. The port reopened a day earlier with some restrictions.

The NTSB estimated that about 6,000 gallons of propane escaped from the pipeline. An unknown quantity of diesel escaped from the dredge; the Coast Guard said about 1,600 gallons of fuel was removed from the channel. Response crews placed roughly 6,000 feet of containment boom around the dredge and its immediate surroundings to minimize environmental impacts.

Numerous lawsuits have been filed since the incident seeking tens of millions of dollars in damages. Kurt Arnold of the Houston law firm Arnold & Itkin filed one of those suits on behalf of crewman Jose Cantu, who suffered burns. The case lists Orion as well as the terminal and pipeline owners as defendants.

“We’re committed to making sure a disaster like this never happens again,” Arnold said.

Separately, Orion has asked a judge to limit its overall liability stemming from the incident.

The NTSB investigation includes reviewing Orion Marine’s training and pipeline marking procedures. The agency also has interviewed surviving Waymon L. Boyd crew and other company personnel. There is no timeline indicating when the results will be released. 

Casey Conley

By Professional Mariner Staff