Pilot takes quick action to avert disaster in Mississippi collision

Quick thinking by a Mississippi River pilot prevented a potentially catastrophic collision when a containership lost its steering and struck a bulk carrier that was about to dock, the Coast Guard said.

The 773-foot Heidelberg Express experienced cascading generator failures and lost power to its electrical systems before the Oct. 22 incident on the river near Pointe a la Hache, La. Although the crew dropped both anchors, the containership drifted toward the 737-foot Yerot Sakos, which was in the process of mooring at a terminal.

Heidelberg Express shows the relatively minor damage on its port side. [Courtesy U.S. Coast Guard]

The port side just aft of the bow of Heidelberg Express struck a glancing blow to the bow of Yerot Sakos alongside the International Marine Terminal (IMT) Myrtle Grove facility at Mile Marker 57 of the lower Mississippi River. Heidelberg Express then crashed through a crane dock and ran aground in the 0125 incident.

No one was injured.

Lt. Cmdr. Cherí Ben-Iesau, Coast Guard chief investigator at New Orleans, said the collision would have been more destructive — except for the efforts of a member of the Crescent River Port Pilots’ Association. When the pilot aboard Yerot Sakos noticed Heidelberg Express bearing down on his ship, he gave the order to put the engines into full reverse. Yerot Sakos backed up just in the nick of time to avoid a more direct hit.

“Evasive action taken by the Yerot Sakos kept that from being a much worse accident than it was,” Ben-Iesau said.

“The Yerot Sakos was already in reverse when they saw it was going to hit them,” she said. The pilot “put it in full and was able to back out of the way enough to definitely mitigate the damage. It ended up being a graze of the bow instead of a T-bone.”

The Liberian-flagged Yerot Sakos, which was loaded with iron ore from Canada, was preparing to offload at IMT Myrtle Grove. The ship was only about 50 feet from — and parallel to — the dock at the time of the accident. Its bow was pointing upriver along the right descending bank.

After losing power to its steering system, the downbound Heidelberg Express drifted to the right. Its bow just barely made it past Yerot Sakos‘ bow, but then Heidelberg‘s port side — just behind the bow — made contact with Yerot Sakos‘ bow, which scraped along Heidelberg‘s port side.

Heidelberg Express ended up with gashes below the anchor drops above the waterline. Yerot Sakos had damage only to the bulwarks on the bow.

Three Bisso Towboat Co. tugboats that were assisting Yerot SakosScott T. Slatten, Cecilia B. Slatten and Katherine S. Slatten — were never in danger, the Coast Guard said.

Hapag-Lloyd AG, based in Hamburg, operated the German-flagged Heidelberg Express. It had called at New Orleans before the accident. Ben-Iesau said a series of power-system breakdowns, beginning with the No. 3 generator, caused the vessel to lose control while it was going downriver.

Crescent Towing tugboats came to the assistance of the containership after it went aground. The tugs then towed the ship back into the channel. [Trevor Cardin]

“It was due to a fault in the load-balancing card for the No. 3 generator,” Ben-Iesau said. “Then there was a defect in the governor of the No. 2 generator. When the No. 2 generator failed, it caused too much of a load with the No. 1 generator, causing it to fail, and they shut down.”

Klaus Heims, a Hapag-Lloyd spokesman, confirmed that Heidelberg Express experienced a power failure and the crew dropped both anchors in a vain attempt to halt the ship’s momentum.

 Heidelberg Express remained grounded along the riverbank for three days until the generator repairs were made.

Three Crescent Towing tugboats — Louisiana, Shelby Friedrichs and Miriam Walmsley Cooper — stood by Heidelberg Express while it was grounded and then towed it back into the channel when repairs were done.

Heidelberg Express sailed back to New Orleans for repairs at Poland Street Wharf, Heims said. It sailed Nov. 3 for Charleston, its previously scheduled port of call.

Entrust Maritime Co. of Greece was managing Yerot Sakos for owner Percival Shipping of Liberia. An Entrust official in Athens said the vessel underwent repairs at the Violet Wharf. The work was completed in mid-November, and the ship back-loaded grain and sailed through the Panama Canal, bound for China.

The wayward Heidelberg Express demolished about 250 feet of dock space at IMT Myrtle Grove. That included a crane dock, walkways and several dolphin moorings. Terminal owner Kinder Morgan Energy Partners L.P. redirected ships to its other facilities on the river. The company expects the damage to be repaired by March 2007.

The Coast Guard said river traffic was not restricted by the incident.

Dom Yanchunas

By Professional Mariner Staff