NTSB: Towboat pilot in barge crash failed to adjust for rainy weather

The pilot operating a towboat with six barges lost contact with his lookouts in heavy rain and collided with two barges moored along the side in the Port Allen, La., channel, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) said.

Three barges were damaged in the collision on Feb. 1, when one of the barges in the two-wide-by-three-long tow of hopper barges loaded with salt collided with two Army Corps of Engineers barges moored alongside the 324-foot-wide channel of the Morgan City-Port Allen Alternate Route of the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway, near Port Allen Lock.

The tow pushed by Natures Way Commander, a 64-foot towboat, was approaching the Port Allen Lock from the west when a heavy squall moved in. Two deck hand lookouts were stationed on the bow of each of the leading barges, according to the pilot’s statement to the U.S. Coast Guard.

The pilot reversed the engine to bring the tow to a stop in the storm, said Frank Dantone, an attorney representing Natures Way Marine, the Mobile, Ala.,-based vessel operator.

“Visibility went to absolutely zero, and the pilot was almost able to stop the tow but still had some momentum when it collided with the Corps barge,” Dantone said.

The pilot told Coast Guard investigators that he hit the barges because he could not communicate by radio with the two lookouts stationed at the head of the tow due to the noise of the heavy rainfall.

The NTSB ruled the causes of the collision to be the pilot’s failure to take into account the lack of visibility from the rain and his failure to communicate with lookouts.

According to Coast Guard reports, about half an hour before the collision the pilot operating Natures Way Commander radioed the Port Allen Lock lockmaster to request entry for transit to the Mississippi River.

The lockmaster recommended that the pilot delay entering the lock because of the bad weather moving in from the west. The pilot reduced his speed and he encountered driving rain and winds of 34 mph with gusts to about 40 mph when the tow approached the lock.

As the rain and wind speed increased, the pilot attempted to stop his vessel and barges due to the reduced visibility. Two lookouts with radios were on the forward barges, but the noise of the wind and driving rain made it difficult to hear radio communication. At about 1630, the 195-foot-long right forward barge collided with an Army Corps deck barge, which then hit a spud barge moored next to it.

According to the surveyor’s report, total damages were estimated at $61,750 for the barges and $44,900 to the wooden pier and gangway where the two barges were moored. There were no injuries reported to the five-person crew, and no damages to Natures Way Commander or other barges were reported.

By Professional Mariner Staff