Report: Deck hand was operating towboat when crane struck bridge

The U.S. Coast Guard is investigating whether a towboat had no licensed captain aboard when a crane on one of the barges it pushed struck a Louisiana drawbridge.

The towboat Razorback’s load damaged the Lapalco Bridge on Oct. 25, 2013, in Harvey, La. The vessel was traveling west at night on the Harvey Canal on the Mississippi River’s West Bank across from New Orleans. The canal is located on the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway.

“The top portion of a crane on a barge struck the catwalk area that is suspended below the bridge girders,” Donald Hogan, assistant director of the streets department in Jefferson Parish, said in early December.

A deck hand was at Razorback’s helm and no licensed captain was aboard, The Times-Picayune newspaper reported in October, citing Coast Guard spokesman Carlos Vega. The crane pushed by Razorback, owned by Specialty Marine Services, hit the bridge around 2300, Vega said then. No pollution was reported.

When contacted later by Professional Mariner, Vega and other Coast Guard officials would not confirm those details.

Road traffic wasn’t impacted, according to Hogan. Jefferson Parish supplied the Coast Guard with a statement of events from the bridge tender, who controls the raising of the Lapalco drawbridge, but the parish isn’t involved in the investigation. When asked about any similar incidents at the bridge, Hogan said three instances had occurred in his seven years on the job.

“These three were not collisions with other vessels, nor were they with respect to the width of the canal,” Hogan said in December. “They were related to the presumed height of the tow with respect to the bridge clearance. And in general in these previous incidents, the vessel operator didn’t ask the tender to open the bridge, assuming clearance was adequate” when it wasn’t.

The absence of a captain can be dangerous. In July 2008, towboat Mel Oliver had no captain on board when it collided with tanker Tintomara in New Orleans, spewing 282,000 gallons of fuel oil into the Mississippi. Mel Oliver’s apprentice mate and owner were sentenced to prison in 2011, and the absent captain was given three years of probation.

Damage to the Lapalco Bridge’s catwalk had yet to be repaired by early January, according to Jefferson Parish. Pennsylvania-based bridge engineers Modjeski and Masters, with an office in New Orleans, inspected the site and were planning repairs, Hogan said. The parish’s streets department funds the bridge’s operations.

“I presume the Parish Attorney’s Office will be involved in recouping all costs associated with the engineering firm and the future repair,” Hogan said.

Citing its investigation, the Coast Guard in December wouldn’t comment on the incident, other than to say the review was expected to wrap up in early 2014 and the parties involved would have a period to appeal findings. Phone calls to Specialty Marine Services in Lutcher, La., were not answered in December and early January.

By Professional Mariner Staff