NTSB: Ship crashed into Ky. bridge because of pilot’s error, faulty lights


A cargo ship struck and destroyed a Kentucky bridge span last year because of the operator’s over-reliance on a contract pilot and failure to consult electronic charting and radar, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) said.

Navigation lighting on Eggners Ferry Bridge was not functioning when Delta Mariner, a 312-foot ship carrying rocket components, transited the wrong span on the night of Jan. 26, 2012. With the vertical clearance too low, the roll-on, roll-off vessel slammed into the span, knocking down a 322-foot section of the highway bridge.

Delta Mariner, operated by Foss Maritime Co., was using the Tennessee River system on a voyage from Decatur, Ala., to Cape Canaveral, Fla. The bridge spans Kentucky Lake near Aurora, Ky.

The probable cause of the accident was “the bridge team’s exclusive reliance on the contract pilot’s incorrect navigational direction as the vessel approached the bridge and their failure to use all available navigation tools to verify the safety of the vessel’s course,” the NTSB said.

Contributing factors were Foss Maritime’s “failure to exercise effective safety oversight of the Delta Mariner’s operations and the failure of the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet to effectively maintain bridge navigation lighting,” the report said.

The crash occurred at about 2000 in rainy weather. Delta Mariner’s personnel followed a green light that lured them through a span used by recreational vessels. The vertical clearance was 33.4 feet. The ship’s vertical height was 50 feet, eight feet less than the height of the center span that would have provided safe passage. The crew reported that it was misled by the lighting, and the NTSB agreed.

“Most of the navigation lights on Eggners Ferry Bridge were extinguished, including the lights marking the main navigation span, which was the intended route of the vessel,” the NTSB said. “The majority of the white lights marking the center of the main navigation span had been extinguished for at least a year prior to the accident and likely for several years.”

The NTSB explained the usage of the term “contract pilot” to represent an additional mariner that joined the oceangoing ship’s crew to provide advice on navigating the river system: Foss “regularly hired experienced towing vessel masters to guide and assist the bridge team for the portion of the inland rivers route between Decatur, Ala., and Baton Rouge, La. … They were not federally or state-licensed pilots but held Coast Guard-issued master of towing vessel licenses,” a report footnote stated.

During testimony at an investigative hearing, crewmembers stated that there was confusion over the vessel’s proper posture as it approached Eggners Ferry Bridge. Neither the contract pilot nor the officers made full use of electronic charts and radar while aiming toward the span, the report said.

“The contract pilot and bridge team focused exclusively on the few lights visible on the bridge while ignoring readily available electronic charting system displays, which could have provided critical information about the vessel’s position in relation to the bridge and the bridge’s correct lighting scheme,” the investigators wrote.

“The contract pilot continued to direct the vessel toward a span that was too low for the Delta Mariner. Further, despite the contract pilot’s apparent uncertainty, none of the bridge team challenged his directions,” the report said.

The investigators said Foss Maritime should have paid more attention to the navigation risks on the inland voyages of Delta Mariner, which was specially made to transport rocket parts for aerospace consortia and regularly sails to inland Alabama.

“Due to the vessel’s good safety record and the company’s reliance on proactive safety measures and a crew of well-trained, experienced deep-sea mariners to provide a high level of safety, the company became complacent regarding the safety of the vessel’s operations,” the NTSB said.

The NTSB recommended that Foss develop a more detailed passage plan for the inland waters, with more specifics on risks, and to more clearly define contract pilots’ necessary expertise and duties. Scott Merritt, Foss’s senior vice president of operations, said Foss has followed through on the recommendations.

“Foss has implemented these changes to enhance safety and follow a process of continual improvement as we work towards a zero-incident operation,” Merritt said in a statement to Professional Mariner. “Included in these improvements are changes that directly respond to the NTSB recommendations and have been implemented into our operations.”

The contract pilot could not be reached for comment.

The NTSB recommends that the Coast Guard identify bridges with chronic navigation lighting deficiencies and to review the way it notifies mariners of the problems. The NTSB recommends that the Federal Highway Administration alert state transportation departments of the circumstances of the Delta Mariner accident and to remind them of their responsibility to maintain bridge lighting.

By Professional Mariner Staff