Probe: Botched engine order led to ship damaging grain facility

A communication breakdown and confusion on the bridge  — including the captain repeatedly yelling “Stop the engine!” on the phone, to no avail — led a bulk carrier to strike a grain elevator on the Houston Ship Channel, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has determined.

The incident occurred at 0504 hours on July 14, 2014, as the 738-foot Anna Smile maneuvered to dock at the Louis Dreyfus elevator near Galena Park, Texas. The ship, owned and operated by Prosperity Bay Shipping of Athens, Greece, was scheduled to load 57,000 metric tons of grain.

According to NTSB investigators, communication between the bridge team and the engine crew broke down when the engine failed to start. Personnel in the engine control room (ECR) went to the machinery space to switch the engine from remote control to local control, but the crew “had no established procedures or training” to effectively handle such an emergency.

Anna Smile’s engine, typically operated from the bridge, was being controlled from the ECR on the day of the incident. Before arriving in Houston, the captain had received an email from the local agent, “which he interpreted as a directive to maneuver the ship with the ECR in control” while in the Houston Ship Channel, the NTSB said. The captain, second mate and a helmsman were on the bridge with two Houston pilots; the chief engineer, second engineer, third engineer and the electrician manned the ECR.

“Throughout the transit, the pilot’s orders for engine commands were issued verbally to the second mate on the bridge, who would repeat the order and then transmit it to the ECR using the engine order telegraph,” the report said. “Once the command was received in the ECR, the engine speed and/or direction was adjusted by the chief engineer using the engine control lever at the ECR console.”

About a half-mile from the dock, the tugboats Hayden II and Captain W.D. Hayden arrived to assist Anna Smile to its berth. As the ship approached the pier, the senior pilot ordered the engine to stop. The slow-speed diesel is directly connected to a fixed-pitch propeller with no reduction gear. To change the ship’s direction, the engine must be brought to a stop to secure the propeller rotation, then restarted either ahead or astern.

The next order was dead astern slow, but the engine failed to start as expected. Two more astern commands were given, both with no response from the engine despite the chief engineer’s efforts. He did not advise the captain that he was having difficulty starting the engine.

When the bridge team noticed the problem on the rpm indicator, the captain called the chief engineer, who said he was going to the machinery space two decks below to switch the control mode of the engine from remote to local. Before leaving the ECR, however, the chief engineer was able to start the engine. He then responded to several astern commands but did not call the bridge to say he was staying in the ECR.

At this point, Anna Smile was moving at about 0.1 knots astern, parallel to the pier and about 30 feet away from it. Hayden II and Captain W.D. Hayden were perpendicular to the ship on the port side. Two mooring lines were lowered on the starboard side, retrieved by line-handling boats and secured to bollards.

The pilot ordered dead slow ahead but once again the engine failed to start. Without calling the bridge, the chief engineer, third engineer and electrician headed to the machinery space to switch the engine to local control, with the second engineer remaining in the ECR.

“During this time, the engine crew did not advise the bridge team, nor were the pilots made aware about the engine status or control location,” the NTSB report stated. “After noticing that the engine was not responding to their commands, the pilots ordered the engine to stop. They decided that the tugboats and mooring lines would be able to bring the ship alongside since the vessel was nearly stopped.”

When the second mate called the ECR to check the status of the engine, he was not advised to call the machinery space to reach the chief engineer directly. The lack of communication “led to a period of confusion” on the bridge, according to the NTSB. The captain began speaking in his native Greek, and the Filipino second mate and helmsman spoke to each other in their native language.

“The captain began repeatedly shouting ‘Stop the engine!’ into the phone, and the engine order telegraph rang unanswered for 47 seconds,” investigators wrote. “The pilot told the tugboat captains via VHF radio that the ship was experiencing engine problems.”

By this time, the chief engineer had started the engine at the dead-slow-ahead engine speed of 40 rpm despite the stop command. After about one minute, the chief engineer was told to stop the engine by the second engineer, who ran down from the ECR to relay the command from the bridge. When investigators asked the chief engineer why he did not answer the phone directly behind him, he stated that it was too loud in the machinery space to hear it.

The pilots responded to Anna Smile’s forward movement by ordering the two tugs to change their heading from athwartships to “looking aft” and to push full ahead with right rudders, the NTSB report stated. The pilots’ main concern was to avoid hitting a barge moored in front of the ship.

“The combination of the vessel’s unintended forward motion and the tugboats’ thrust predominantly in the aft direction caused the starboard quarter of the Anna Smile to make contact with the pier, compressing a rubber bumper and striking a concrete pedestal as well as the steel frame of the elevator,” the NTSB said.

Damage to the grain elevator’s east tower was estimated at $2.5 million. To repair it, contractors had to remove and replace the entire upper section of the tower from the base.
Anna Smile sustained minor scraping and a 2-inch-wide, 30-foot-long inset in its hull plating. A damage estimate was not available. The ship’s classification society recommended that the inset be repaired by June 2017.

Following the incident, the engineering staff found excessive moisture in the control air system used to remotely operate the engine from the bridge or ECR. After removing the moisture, the engine was successfully tested and Anna Smile was cleared to sail.

NTSB investigators said Prosperity Bay Shipping had a safety management system in place for the vessel, “but no specific guidance dealt with a failure of the main engine control system from the ECR, nor did it require training for emergency engine operations of this nature.” The company did not respond to requests for comment.

By Professional Mariner Staff