Pilot’s lack of familiarity led to fatal towboat capsizing, NTSB says

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A relief pilot’s unfamiliarity with the operation of an electronic engine control throttle led to a fatal capsizing after a towboat hit a Mississippi River dam on July 3, 2013, according to the National Transportation Safety Board.

Deck hand Tyler Trussoni, 22, drowned after the towboat Megan McB became pinned against Lock and Dam No. 7 near Dresbach, Minn., and capsized in high water. The other two crewmembers, including the pilot, escaped.

The NTSB determined that the probable cause of the incident was the pilot’s lack of familiarity with the electronic throttle controls on the vessel. A contributing factor was the lack of procedures to ensure that the vessel was operated by a replacement pilot familiar with the electronic engine control throttles, which were unique to this vessel in the company’s fleet.

According to the NTSB, the relief pilot was an experienced operator but previously had not been at the helm of the 65-foot Megan McB, which was added to the Brennan Marine Inc. fleet in 2013. The new 1,200-hp, 114-ton vessel used electronic throttle controls, unlike the air controls on the other vessels the relief pilot had operated.

The originally scheduled pilot was called away for a family emergency, and another relief pilot took over the first part of the 1800-0600 shift. The second relief pilot took over at 0100 to work to the end of the shift at 0600.

Unbeknownst to the relief pilots, the operator must press the “station select” button on the electronic throttle control to re-engage the throttle controls whenever the engine or electronics are turned off. The report said the first relief pilot operated the vessel for several hours without incident. The second relief pilot boarded the operating vessel during the shift and worked a tow through the lock and another through the railroad bridge at LaCrosse, Wis., without problems, prior to a generator switchover near the end of the shift.

Brennan Marine’s procedure for crew changes called for switching between two onboard generators before the next crew arrived. To reduce the load on the generator, at about 0545 the pilot shut down the electronics on the bridge, which deactivated the electronic throttle control. The first mate shut down the main engines and completed the generator switch in the engine room.

The pilot told the NTSB that he did not know the procedure for pressing the “station select” button on the throttle control head to re-engage the throttle controls. He said he did not receive any instructions on the throttle when he came on board. When he went to use the throttles after the generator start, he could not control the engines.

“Because it worked for me on one boat into the lock, one boat down at the railroad bridge, I had no reason to monkey with anything other than what I needed to tweak, like the radar or something,” the pilot told the Coast Guard investigators. “I had no need to do nothing else.”

Deck hand Tyler Trussoni, left, was killed. Investigators said the relief pilot was unfamiliar with the boat’s throttle.

Courtesy Trussoni family

At about 0555, the pilot began to maneuver Megan McB into the main lock of Lock and Dam 7. He radioed for the crew to let go the mooring line and deck hand Trussoni went to the bow and removed the line from the mooring pin on the pier. 

The pilot then attempted to engage the engines by moving both throttles forward on the electronic control head. However, because he had not pressed the “station select” button, the engines did not respond, the NTSB said. 

The pilot radioed the deck hand to throw the mooring line back onto the pin, but he missed. By the time the deck hand recovered the line for a second attempt, the swift current had carried the vessel too far away from the mooring pin. The incident occurred during high water on the upper Mississippi, when water was flowing at about 89,000 cubic feet per second, almost three times the normal rate, according to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

The current swept Megan McB into gate No. 1 on the dam, and the starboard-side superstructure hit the catwalk on top of the dam. With the superstructure pinned, the current pushed against the hull and the vessel capsized onto its port side.

The pilot and first mate were able to escape through the wheelhouse windows, which the strong current had broken, but the deck hand could not be located at the time. Later that day, divers from Brennan Marine located his body on the second deck of Megan McB’s superstructure.

The vessel was later refloated. Damage to the vessel was estimated at $500,000, primarily to interior spaces and equipment.

Officials at Brennan Marine did not return phone calls seeking comment.

By Professional Mariner Staff