NTSB says risky maneuver by pilot caused ship to hit bridge

  1. A tug helps Kition move away from the dock and into the 3- to 4-knot current.
  2. Midway through the turn, two tugs begin pushing at the stern.
  3. Turned parallel to the bridge, the ship strikes the I-10 pier.

(Source: National Transportation Safety Board/Ginny Howe illustration)

A pilot’s risky turning maneuver on the Mississippi River caused a collision between a tanker and a Louisiana bridge pier in 2007, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has ruled.

The 798-foot Kition rammed the fender and pier of the Interstate 10 Bridge at Port Allen, La., on Feb. 10, 2007. The accident caused almost $9 million in damage to the bridge and ship.

The Bahamas-flagged tanker, with its bow pointing upriver had just undocked from the Apex Oil terminal, on the right descending bank just above the bridge. Normally, to sail downriver, such a vessel would transit the bridge first and then turn around, or sail a bit upriver before turning around.

The New Orleans-Baton Rouge Steamship Pilots Association (NOBRA) pilot instead began turning the ship moments after undocking, the NTSB report said. While swinging to starboard in a 3 to 4-knot current, Kition’s bulbous bow smashed the bridge fender and its starboard bulwark damaged the pier.

The NTSB said the cause of the accident “was the pilot’s attempt to execute the high-risk maneuver of turning at the dock immediately above the bridge rather than moving the vessel downriver through the bridge before turning or taking it well upriver, then turning.”

The investigators recommended that the NOBRA Board of Examiners “verify that the pilots assigned to challenging locations such as the Apex dock have received adequate training in docking and undocking large vessels at such locations.”

Loaded with carbon black, a petroleum byproduct commonly used as a pigment, Kition undocked with the help of three tugboats. The pilot testified that he had intended to turn Kition downriver of the bridge. He told NOBRA examiners that the tanker went out of control because one tug hesitated as it tried to prevent a line from fouling the tug’s props. Video evidence and statements from the ship and tug crews don’t support his claim, the NTSB report said.

The width of the navigable area under the bridge is 1,109 feet, leaving the pilot only a 300-foot margin for error, the NTSB said. The report stated that the turn “demonstrated poor judgment on the pilot’s part.”

The master-pilot exchange before undocking was “terrible,” the pilot acknowledged.

“The pilot told investigators that he did not discuss with the master how he planned to turn the vessel around before heading downriver, and that he normally did not inform masters of his plans unless they asked,” the report said. “Both statements are inconsistent with good bridge resource management.”

The pilot, who had five years of experience, was ordered to undergo four to six weeks of supplemental training. Capt. Henry G. Shows Jr., chairman of the NOBRA Board of Examiners, said his pilots will receive instruction on the episode during shiphandling simulator training, required every five years.

“We are making sure we address that kind of docking in our program,” Shows told Professional Mariner. “It’s mostly the situational awareness part — looking around you to see what’s there and to make sure you’re prudent in the way you leave a berth.”

In an “all hands” meeting, “we discussed that area and other areas and went over risk assessment,” Shows said. “We’re suggesting that no vessel be turned in that area along the bridge.”

Dom Yanchunas

By Professional Mariner Staff