After loading crude oil on the Lower Mississippi River, the articulated tug-barge Buster Bouchard and B. No. 255 sailed for Corpus Christi, Texas. Oil leaked from a forward cargo tank for most of that voyage, allowing fuel and vapors to build up in the forepeak, according to federal investigators.
Before dawn on Oct. 20, 2017, as the ATB prepared to get underway near Port Aransas, Texas, those vapors ignited and caused a series of explosions. Two crewmen working at the bow of the barge died and roughly 2,000 barrels of oil spilled into the Gulf of Mexico.
National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) investigators could not determine the source of ignition on B. No. 255. However, the agency reached damning conclusions about Bouchard Transportation’s safety culture and maintenance program. The NTSB also highlighted deficiencies in U.S. Coast Guard and American Bureau of Shipping (ABS) inspection regimes.
Maintenance issues on Bouchard barges were not limited to B. No. 255. Post-incident inspections of 25 other company barges identified 251 deficiencies, and authorities placed operational controls on 10 vessels pending correction of one or more serious deficiencies.
“Based on the results of these inspections and the condition of barge B. No. 255 as found after the accident, the NTSB concludes that Bouchard Transportation’s SMS (safety management system) and maintenance processes failed to ensure proper maintenance of the company’s fleet of barges, including B. No. 255,” the agency said in its accident report.
“Additionally,” the report continued, “the NTSB concludes that Bouchard Transportation management failed to promote and ensure a safety culture in the company, which compromised the safety of both the vessel and the crew.”
In a prepared statement, Bouchard Transportation of Melville, N.Y., said it did not agree with all of the NTSB findings. A company spokeswoman declined to provide specific areas where Bouchard disagreed with the report.
Du’Jour Vanterpool, 26, of Houston, and Zachariah Jackson, 28, of Salt Lake City, Utah, died in the incident. Bouchard’s statement said the two men will never be forgotten and that the company’s thoughts and prayers remain with the victims’ families.
The 468-foot B. No. 255, pushed by the 6,140-hp Buster Bouchard, loaded 135,000 barrels of crude oil at the NuStar Energy terminal in St. James, La., on Oct. 16. The voyage toward Corpus Christi was uneventful, and the ATB anchored 3.25 miles offshore of Port Aransas on Oct. 19.
Vanterpool and Jackson, working at the bow of B. No. 255, prepared to raise the anchor at about 0430 on Oct. 20. One of the men reported to the mate on watch via radio that the windlass was struggling to raise the final two shots of chain. He believed the anchor was off the bottom, something the mate considered unlikely in just 45 feet of water.
“At some point after the last communication from the barge, the mate, who was facing to port in the tugboat’s wheelhouse, saw a flash out of his peripheral vision,” the report said. “As he looked forward, he saw blue flames on the bow around the area of the winch. The flames were immediately followed by an explosion.”
Several more explosions followed, and Buster Bouchard ultimately disengaged from the barge to protect the crew on the tug. The mate attempted to contact both barge crewmen and when he could not, he alerted the Coast Guard. Several fireboats responded, and the barge fire was extinguished within about six and a half hours.
NTSB investigators found that cracks in the bulkhead separating the forepeak from the port No. 1 cargo tank had allowed oil to seep through. The dashed section was removed and sent to the agency’s Materials Laboratory for analysis.
U.S. Coast Guard
B. No. 255, built in 1979 and upgraded to a double hull in 1999, can hold just over 188,000 barrels of cargo. The NTSB determined the explosive vapors came from crude oil that seeped for four days through cracks and pocks in the bulkhead separating the port No. 1 cargo tank and the forepeak.
“The head pressure created by (oil) cargo levels above the cracks and other areas of through-bulkhead corrosion would have allowed the oil to seep through the openings in the bulkhead and collect inside the forepeak,” the report said.
According to testimony from the Coast Guard Marine Board of Investigation, Jackson noticed oil vapors in the forepeak before the incident. The day before, he called an off-duty crewmember and asked how to vent the space. Although the Coast Guard did not identify the ignition source, it listed the windlass motor in the forepeak, exposed electrical wire on the deck, or sparks created when raising the anchor as possible sources, the report said.
Investigators conducted a thorough examination of metal taken from B. No. 255, particularly the bulkhead separating the No. 1 cargo tank from the forepeak space. They found two horizontal through-cracks above the transverse framing. Both cracks were more than a foot long, and subsequent testing showed the cracks and other small holes predated the explosions. Corrosion and wastage on the deck of the barge also predated the explosions, the report said.
B. No. 255 underwent numerous inspections and surveys in the two years preceding the incident by the Coast Guard and ABS. During an ABS survey on June 24, 2016, Bouchard did not make the forepeak available to the surveyor, the NTSB noted.
Ten months later, a survey overseen by the Oil Companies International Marine Forum (OCIMF) found 50 percent of the barge’s hull coatings had failed, the report said, and that corrosion existed where there were no coatings. Yet within nine days of the OCIMF inspection, the Coast Guard and ABS both found no deficiencies on the barge.
The NTSB determined inspection programs at both ABS and the Coast Guard were “ineffective.” ABS said it disputed several of the NTSB findings, while the Coast Guard did not respond to a request for comment.
“ABS has reviewed the NTSB report and takes exception to a number of the factual findings contained therein, particularly those findings pertaining to the cause and origin of the explosion and fire, and the effectiveness of the ABS surveys,” ABS spokesman Gareth Lewis told Professional Mariner.
ABS added that it has “already taken steps” to enhance its survey program and collaborate more closely with the Coast Guard as recommended in the NTSB report.
“We have noted the NTSB recommendation to establish policies and procedures on the sharing of information and, considering that a reciprocal recommendation was provided to the Coast Guard, ABS is working with the Coast Guard in a further effort to improve safety in the maritime industry,” Lewis said.
The NTSB also recommended that Bouchard evaluate its safety management system with an outside firm to identify and improve “the areas that allowed for the poor mechanical and structural condition of B. No. 255.”
Bouchard did not respond when asked if it had followed the recommendation.