Mariners controlling a cargo ship that destroyed a Kentucky bridge span were confused about whether they were guiding the ship toward the proper span in the moments before the accident.
The roll-on/roll-off vessel Delta Mariner crashed into Eggners Ferry Bridge on the evening of Jan. 26 while on a northbound voyage in the Tennessee River system. The 312-foot ship struck a span whose vertical clearance was too low.
Officials with Delta Mariner operator Foss Maritime Co. blamed the accident on the bridge owner because navigation lights over the commercial channel’s bridge span, with the higher draft, weren’t working. The ship crew followed a green light over the recreation channel instead.
In April, the U.S. Coast Guard and National Transportation Safety Board held a formal hearing as part of their investigation of the accident. During testimony, Delta Mariner’s captain and chief mate, plus a river pilot who was aboard and a Foss general manager, described the effects of the bridge-light discrepancy on how the men approached the spans. Their statements, plus radio recordings, confirmed that there was doubt about which channel to use.
The captain was on the ship’s bridge at the time but was not on watch. The chief mate gave the commands under advice of the river pilot.
“There was some discussion as to whether the span we were heading for was the right span,” the chief mate testified. “When I became aware of that, I recall saying, ‘What’s it gonna be?’ or something of that nature, and I recall repeating that actually a couple of times.”
The chief mate thought the bridge looked a little low, but the radio recording indicated that the river pilot told him to aim for the green light. The crew and pilot testified that they never saw three white lights that would indicate a navigable span.
“We had a highly experienced bridge crew,” he said. “I depended on the pilot to make that judgment.”
While Delta Mariner sailed toward the recreational-vessel span, the crew and pilot continued to be concerned that they were headed for the wrong span. Searchlights were pointed at the bridge piers and a lookout was trying to make a visual check. The captain, who had just arrived after sleeping, said that if the ship needed to be turned around, it would need to be done immediately. The pilot continued the transit and the ship struck the span, which plunged down onto the vessel.
The river pilot testified that the light configuration “tricked” him. He avoided a span that was not lit up and chose the one that was.
Bobby Pepper, the Foss general manager, said the voyage plan stated they would use the commercial channel and the proper bridge span. The vessel’s deviation from the voyage plan was not discovered in time.
“The third mate ultimately should have probably caught the error … as being the backup guy,” Pepper said. “That would be not looking at the track line and seeing that we were veering off the track line.”
Pepper said the crew had reviewed the proposed bridge transit in detail. The third mate relieved the second mate at 1745. The chief mate took the helm at 1900. The crash occurred at 2000.
“They verified the clearance before the second mate prepared the passage plan … but they were misled by the lights,” Pepper said.
Kentucky Transportation Cabinet, the state agency that owns the highway bridge, had planned to repair the lights marking the navigation channel the next day. The Coast Guard broadcast a radio notice to mariners stating that the lights weren’t working, but the Delta Mariner officers said they never heard it.
The height of Delta Mariner, which was carrying space rocket components, is 50 feet. The bridge’s center span would have provided 57.5 feet of clearance. The recreational span’s clearance was 33 feet.
The destroyed span was replaced in an emergency project, and the highway bridge reopened May 25.
Delta Mariner’s captain testified that he believes the non-functioning lights were the main cause of the accident. Pepper agreed.
“They were going to the lights. If I had been coming down the river, that’s where I would have gone,” Pepper testified at the hearing. If the lights had been functioning properly, “I’m sure we wouldn’t be sitting here right now.”