Probe: Drunken bridge tender lowered span onto laker during green-light transit

The tender of a Rouge River drawbridge was intoxicated on the job and lowered the span in front of an oncoming laker, striking the vessel, according to the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB).

The incident caused $50 million in damage to the bridge, which had to be closed.

At approximately 0212 on May 12, 2013, the upbound Herbert C. Jackson was about to pass through the open drawbridge at Jefferson Avenue, about six miles southwest of Detroit, when the bridge operator inexplicably lowered the bridge in the path of the vessel. The NTSB investigation found the experienced bridge tender was intoxicated on the job.

A few minutes before, the master had blown one long and one short to notify the tender of the approach and to request a bridge opening. The master brought the vessel to an almost complete stop, waiting on permission to proceed, the NTSB report said. 

At about 0205, the master saw the bridge open, and when it was fully open and the green lights were visible, he increased speed to about 2 mph. Then the captain saw the bridge begin to move downward, said Thomas Wynne, general counsel for Interlake Steamship Co., owner of Herbert C. Jackson.

The master told the NTSB he saw the bridge lower quickly in front of the vessel and immediately set the engine full astern. He ordered the mates on the bow and stern to drop anchors. The stern anchor was deployed. The master recognized an impact was imminent and sounded the general alarm. Crewmembers were able to evacuate the bow area before deploying the bow anchor. The bridge closed completely on the bow and struck the vessel’s forward house.

After the bridge struck the vessel, the stern anchor was raised and the master backed away and anchored.

The NTSB determined the tender, who had 17 years of service with the city and eight years as a bridge tender, lowered the drawbridge in front of Herbert C. Jackson.

The Coast Guard performed drug and alcohol testing on the crew, with negative results. The bridge tender was tested by local law enforcement officers and was found to have a blood alcohol level in excess of the legal limit. The bridge tender accepted full responsibility for the accident and was terminated from the job at the Wayne County Department of Public Services Roads Division.

The self-unloader was carrying 22,000 tons of iron ore for the Severstal North American steel plant in Dearborn, Mich.

Damage to Herbert C. Jackson was estimated at about $5,000, including a 3- to 4-inch hole in the bow about 2 feet above the anchor pocket. The 93-year-old bridge was closed to vehicle traffic, and the cost to repair its structural steel and replace the concrete foundation was estimated at $50 million.

By Professional Mariner Staff