NTSB: Hull leaks reported but ‘not resolved’ before towboat sinking


Tom Bussler was upbound on the Tennessee River when the captain noticed the bow riding low in the water. He steered toward the riverbank but didn’t get there before the 58-foot towboat sank.

The captain and deck hand barely had time to escape. Both spent more than 20 minutes in the frigid, dark river. Crew from the good Samaritan vessel George Leavell ultimately rescued them.

The sinking occurred Jan. 7, 2019, at 2030 at mile marker 15 near Calvert City, Ky., on a relatively calm night with good visibility. The 1,000-hp vessel, worth nearly $300,000, sank within the channel. It was scrapped after salvage.

National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) investigators determined that flooding into Tom Bussler’s hull voids through numerous fractures caused the sinking.

“Throughout 2018, multiple issues with the hull were reported by crewmembers,” the NTSB report said. “However, attempts to find the leaks were unsuccessful, and the reported issues were not resolved. Instead, portable pumps were used to control the water ingress. … The lack of hull repair evidence and daily pumping of the towboat’s voids indicated that management did not address issues with the vessel’s watertight integrity in a timely manner.”

McGinnis Equipment Co. Inc. of South Point, Ohio, owned the 51-year-old Tom Bussler, and its subsidiary National Maintenance & Repair of Kentucky operated the vessel. Neither firm responded to requests for comment on the NTSB findings.

Tom Bussler’s two crewmembers reported for their 12-hour shift at 1700 on the day of the incident, and 30 minutes later they got underway at mile marker 4. The first job called for retrieving an empty barge from Arkema Chemicals about 12 miles upriver.

Photos from the NTSB report show pre-existing corrosion on Tom Bussler, including on the bow deck near the port tow knee and in the hull of the bow void. 

NTSB photo

The first sign of trouble occurred shortly after 2000 at mile 11 when the captain noticed the bow sitting heavy in the water. The situation worsened over the next 15 minutes, and at about 2025 the deck hand reported the bow was underwater.

As the captain steered toward the left descending bank, the towboat developed a pronounced starboard list, and moments later it lost power when the generator shut down. Crew never issued a distress call.

“The deck hand escaped the vessel through the starboard door of the wheelhouse. The captain grabbed his life jacket but was only able to get one arm through before water began to fill the wheelhouse. He ran to the wheelhouse’s starboard door and escaped just as Tom Bussler capsized to starboard and sank, bow first,” the report said.

Both men swam toward a nearby coal dock but couldn’t reach it. They spent between 20 and 25 minutes in the 45-degree water until Wepfer Marine’s George Leavell rescued them. The two spent the night at a hospital and were released the next day.

Salvage crews raised the towboat 11 days later. A surveyor identified numerous hull fractures present before the vessel went down. Several fractures were more than a foot long and a quarter-inch wide. There were almost 30 inches of fractures just on the port bow quarter plating. Tom Bussler’s last dry dock was about a year before the incident, at which time there were no repairs focused on improving watertight integrity.

The captain and deck hand told investigators about a pre-existing crack in the bow centerline void just above the waterline. Documents also indicated the operating company learned of various deficiencies throughout 2018, including the presence of unidentified leaks that required void spaces to be pumped regularly. These issues were never resolved, according to the NTSB.

“The lack of action by the operating company to repair these several known hull deficiencies in a timely manner, once identified by the vessel’s crew, was counter to the guidance outlined in their SMS (safety management system) and was directly related to the flooding.”

By Professional Mariner Staff