Three mariners are missing and presumed dead following a predawn collision between two towboats on the Lower Mississippi River near Luling, La.
The 185-foot Cooperative Spirit was upbound with 40 barges when it collided with the downbound R.C. Creppel, which had a two-barge tow and four crew on board. The 69-foot R.C. Creppel sank almost immediately. The incident happened at 0534 on Jan. 26 at mile marker 123.
“After Cooperative Spirit collided with R.C. Creppel, it collided with (the bulk carrier) Glory First,” Coast Guard spokesman Travis Magee said. “All 42 barges were set adrift from the two towing vessels involved.”
Magee said Cooperative Spirit’s starboard barge string hit the 738-foot bulker. The barges were still attached to the towboat at the time.
The Coast Guard identified R.C. Creppel’s missing mariners as Shawn Pucheu of Bay St. Louis, Miss., Matthew Brigalia of Plaquemine, La., and Lester Naquin of Pointe-aux-Chenes, La. Crew from the vessel Louisiana rescued the towboat’s fourth crewmember from the water. That person has not been identified.
The Coast Guard and National Transportation Safety Board are investigating the incident. The ongoing inquiries limited what officials could disclose about the collision, specifically the chain of events that preceded it. Also unclear is how R.C. Creppel sank. Cooperative Spirit sustained only minor damage.
AIS trackline data shows the two vessels approaching one another at Twenty-Six Mile Point, north of the Hale Boggs Memorial Bridge linking Luling and Destrehan, La. Cooperative Spirit’s trackline then shows it abruptly moving away from the right ascending bank. It is not clear from the AIS data if the movement to port came before or after impact.
After the collision, the trackline shows Cooperative Spirit appearing to back away from R.C. Creppel. As it moved downriver with the current, Cooperative Spirit’s starboard barges made contact with Glory First at about 0540. The upbound ship was roughly a mile behind the towboats when they collided.
The AIS data could not be independently verified, and the Coast Guard has not commented on either towboat’s actions before impact. It’s not clear if the tows planned to meet port to port or starboard to starboard, or if they communicated over radio.
The 2,000-hp R.C. Creppel was built in 2012. It was pushing two barges: SCC-95 carrying sulfuric acid, and RHA-2204 carrying sulfuric acid residues. Damage from the collision caused an “acute amount” of sulfuric acid to escape one of the barges from a relief valve. The Coast Guard did not identify which barge was involved.
One mariner aboard R.C. Creppel was rescued after the vessel sank; the bodies of three other crewmen have not been recovered.
Entech Design photo
“This release was in gas form and was calculated out later to be small enough to not merit the label of a ‘reportable quantity,’” Magee said.
Cooperative Spirit’s 40-barge tow comprised 20 empty barges and 20 barges loaded with undisclosed non-hazardous bulk cargo. The 10,500-hp towboat, built in 1975, recovered most of its barges shortly after the initial impact.
The Coast Guard led an extensive search for Pucheu, Brigalia and Naquin, assisted by state and local agencies. Searchers covered more than 835 nautical miles over nearly three days without locating the men. Efforts to raise R.C. Creppel will begin “as soon as it is safe to do so,” Magee said, acknowledging it could be several months before that happens due to high water and other factors.
Memorial services were held for Pucheu, Brigalia and Naquin in their respective hometowns. Thomas Rhoades, a chaplain with the Seamen’s Church Institute based in Baton Rouge, La., attended all three services. He said the men were “well supported by the community” and that mariners drove from miles around to share condolences.
“It is devastating when (mariners’) bodies are not recovered,” Rhoades said, referring to such cases as “ambiguous” deaths. “It is extremely hard on parents and spouses and children when they don’t get to see the bodies.”
Elite Towing of New Orleans owned R.C. Creppel. Rhoades said that Elite’s owner knew the victims well. “It was really a painful loss in light of the fact the company owner was very, very connected to these individuals,” Rhoades said.
Attempts to reach Elite Towing were not successful. The sinking cut the company’s fleet in half.
Cooperative Spirit is owned by American River Transportation Co. (ARTCO), a subsidiary of agribusiness giant Archer Daniels Midland. An ADM spokeswoman expressed condolences “to the families and friends of those involved” but declined to comment further due to the ongoing investigations.
The fatal collision has spurred lawsuits and other legal maneuvering. Houston attorney Kurt Arnold has filed a wrongful-death lawsuit against ARTCO and Elite Towing on behalf of the families of Pucheu and Brigalia. The suit alleges that both vessels were unseaworthy, among other claims.
ARTCO attorneys have asked the courts to limit the company’s liability stemming from the collision. The company is seeking protection using the Limitation of Liability Act of 1851. ARTCO, through the ADM spokeswoman, declined to comment on the pending legal matters.