NTSB: Towing vessel sank because captain ignored hull breach

A Mississippi River towboat capsized and sank near St. Louis in July 2014 because the captain continued to operate the vessel despite a hull breach, the National Transportation Safety Board has determined.

Jim Marko sank at mile marker 181.6 on the Upper Mississippi on July 1, 2014. The 66-foot, 158-ton towboat was light, transiting upriver to the fleeting area near Venice, Ill., with a crew of four.

The towboat belonged to Osage Marine Inc., based in St. Louis. Officials at Osage Marine did not return calls for comment.

Coming on duty at 0600, the crew went through a pre-departure checklist and noted no discrepancies. Crewmembers told NTSB investigators they regularly had to pump water out of the vessel’s bow and stern void spaces.

At 1030 one of the deck hands noticed a hole in Jim Marko’s starboard side below the rub rail, about three feet aft of the turn of the bow. The captain, who was operating the vessel, asked one of the crewmembers to photograph the hole so he could see it. The captain told the mate he would report the hole to the company and continued to work in the KMI fleeting area. After turning a barge, the vessel moved upriver to the Venice fleeting area.

At about 1115, the deck hand began pumping out the stern void to level the vessel. Then crewmembers noticed the vessel was down by the bow. At about 1130 they opened the bow hatch and found the void rapidly filling with water. They attempted to pump the void but couldn’t keep up with the incoming water. The vessel began listing to starboard and water began coming over the bow.

The probable cause of the sinking “was the captain’s decision to continue operations with a known hull breach in the vicinity of the vessel’s waterline. Contributing to the rapid sinking was a lack of watertight integrity due to watertight doors on the main deck left open while underway,” the NTSB wrote.

The crew on the towboat Miranda Paige, which was pushing a barge about three-quarters of a mile behind Jim Marko, noticed the vessel was in distress and approached. By then Jim Marko had a large starboard heel and the port propeller was visible above the water. The Miranda Paige tow was able to come alongside Jim Marko, and the crew was able to abandon the vessel directly onto the barge.

The captain of Miranda Paige told NTSB investigators that two of the Jim Marko crewmembers were not wearing shoes and one did not have a life jacket. The Miranda Paige captain said that he did not keep a line on Jim Marko because he was afraid that it would pull down the barge or damage it. Jim Marko sank within minutes. The vessel settled on its starboard side on the bottom of the river.

Due to high water conditions, salvage of the vessel was delayed about a month.

The salvage report indicated a triangular gusset bracket had been “swiveled” and pushed into the compartment to create an 8-by-16-inch hole. The vessel had pinhole leaks on the port side of the bow void and a leak where potable water piping penetrated the forward engine room bulkhead.

The damage survey noted that several watertight doors were found open, including the starboard and aft galley doors on the main deck. Those open doors allowed water to flow directly into the engine room once the bow submerged.

The president of Osage Marine told investigators the company’s policy required the watertight doors to be closed when the vessel was underway.

No one was injured in the incident. The sinking resulted in damage exceeding the $800,000 insured value of the vessel, and an undetermined amount of oil was released into the river.

By Professional Mariner Staff