A towboat lost control of its barges, which crashed into an Illinois River dam last year, because of miscommunication and poor decisions during record high water, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) said.
The 128-foot uninspected towing vessel Dale A. Heller was pushing a 14-barge tow downbound on the Illinois River on the evening of April 18, 2013. With record high water on the river, the tow was attempting to enter the Marseilles Canal when it encountered a strong crosscurrent.
Three other towing vessels were called to assist in moving the 5,600-hp Dale A. Heller, operated by Ingram Barge Co., and its tow to safe anchorage to ride out the high water. Upon information on water flow provided by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers lockmaster and other personnel, the captain of Dale A. Heller decided to move to safer waters past the dam.
However, the vessels were unable to move the tow past the dam in the main river channel, which runs parallel to the Marseilles Canal leading to the locks about a mile and a half downstream from the dam. The channel to the dam is protected by five concrete pillars. The tow struck a concrete retaining wall in the channel, causing some barges to break loose. Another barge struck one of the pillars, causing more barges to break loose, which were pulled into the dam.
The probable cause of the Dale A. Heller tow crashing into the Marseilles Dam “was the decision by all involved parties to proceed with the passage of the tow during a period of record-high water and significant risk,” the NTSB wrote in the report. “Contributing to the accident was the failure of the Marseilles Dam lockmaster and the Dale A. Heller captain to communicate effectively about the actual positioning of the dam’s gates before and during the transit.”
The dam is nearly 600 feet long with eight submersible Tainter gates, 60 feet wide by 16 feet high. According to the NTSB report, the Corps lockmaster raises and lowers the gates to control water flow through the dam. The lockmaster communicates the level of flow to river traffic to provide the speed of the crosscurrent that flows across the channel toward the dam. Vessel operators can use the information to decide whether it is safe to transit the river in front of the dam channel.
According to the NTSB, the dam operator communicates the amount of water by saying 24 feet of gate is open, or eight gates are open three feet. The maximum opening is 72 feet, or all eight gates open nine feet.
Due to large amounts of rainfall, nearly every river in the region experienced flood stage levels, and the Illinois River experienced record flooding the week of April 18.
On the morning of April 17, Dale A. Heller arrived east of the Marseilles Dam pushing 14 barges, 13 loaded with bulk cargoes and one empty. With the river rising and additional rain forecast, Dale A. Heller held up about three-fourths of a mile upriver from the dam to wait for better conditions. Several hours later another towboat, Loyd Murphy, pushing 15 barges, also held up alongside Dale A. Heller due to the worsening river conditions.
While the vessels waited, rapid rainfall pushed the river level even higher. By the morning of April 18, both vessels were having trouble holding their position. Loyd Murphy’s tow later was tied at a mooring, but there wasn’t room for both tows.
At 1400 on April 18, the River Industry Action Committee and the Illinois River Carriers’ Association held a conference call with personnel from the Coast Guard, the Army Corps and others from the industry. The group discussed the deteriorating river conditions and the Dale A. Heller situation.
The group decided to move the Dale A. Heller tow west into the Marseilles Canal to provide a safe haven against the rising water. The group decided to have Loyd Murphy and two Corps towing vessels — City of Ottawa and Creve Coeur — assist Dale A. Heller on the approach to the canal.
The lockmaster said he would temporarily reduce the flow of water at the dam by closing 16 feet of gate to allow the Dale A. Heller tow to pass. That meant 50 feet of gate would still be open.
According to the NTSB’s report, parties on the conference call misunderstood and thought that only 16 feet of gate would be open. That information was relayed to the towing vessel captains.
“The Dale A. Heller captain later told investigators that he would not have attempted the move into the Marseilles Canal had he known that the dam had more than 16 feet of open gate (and that, in fact, 50 feet of gate was open),” the report said. According to the 2009 Waterways Action Plan, an outdraft warning sign should be displayed at 15 feet of gate opening.
At about 1700, City of Ottawa, Creve Coeur and Loyd Murphy began assisting the Dale A. Heller tow in getting underway. A Corps crane supervisor was on board Loyd Murphy for a direct communications link to the lockmaster. The lockmaster began closing the gates from 66 feet open to 50 feet open.
As the tow and assisting vessels began moving toward the canal, the lock supervisor saw the river was close to breaching the levee and flooding the city of Marseilles. The crane supervisor and the captain of Loyd Murphy agreed the gates should be opened back up to 58 feet. However, at about 1720 the lockmaster opened the gates to their original position of 66 feet, according to the NTSB report.
About 13 minutes later, as the tow entered the Marseilles Canal, the outdraft or crosscurrent pulled the tow toward the dam. As the tow was pulled in by the current, the three helper vessels broke away.
The Corps crane supervisor called the lockmaster and directed him to close the gates, but it was too late. At about 1734, the lead barge on the starboard side struck the concrete retaining wall on Bells Island that separates the dam channel from the Marseilles Canal. Dale A. Heller lost all 14 barges. Seven of them ended up against the dam, and four of those sank. The remaining seven barges were corralled.
Ingram Barge would not comment, according to spokeswoman Elizabeth Fielding.
Damage to the barges, two of which were totaled, and loss of cargo was estimated at $3.77 million. The dam sustained damage on five gates, two of which were rendered inoperative. Total damage to the dam and barges was estimated between $44 million and $54 million.