Towboat captain killed following Mississippi River downstreaming maneuver

River levels that rose to extreme heights following a period of heavy rain in late February claimed the life of a towboat captain on the Mississippi River.

The master of the vessel Patty Ann was attempting a downstreaming maneuver against a fleet of barges on Mile 127 of the Upper Mississippi when his vessel was suddenly caught broadside to the current and dragged beneath the barge. The 65-foot towboat Patty Ann, operated by Luhr Bros., Inc., of Columbia, Ill., had approached the rake end of an empty barge – part of a moored fleet – from upstream.

‘During that time we had a dramatic increase in water levels, which, naturally, resulted in a dramatic increase in the velocity of the current,’ said Lt. Joseph Rock, senior investigations officer of the U.S. Coast Guard Marine Safety Office in St. Louis. ‘On Feb. 25 the gauge at Brickey’s Landing was 13.7 feet. On Feb. 27, the day the incident occurred, it was 27.5 feet. That gives you a sense of how high the water was and how quickly it developed.’ Patty Ann was preparing to move a barge in a fleeting area at the time of the accident.

‘The operator was able to get the left tow knee on the forward rake, and two deckhands were able to get aboard the barge. But quickly thereafter the starboard side of the towboat became pinned to the rake end of the barge. Forty seconds later it was forced under the rake,’ Rock said. An added risk in this incident was the fact that the barges were empty, creating better leverage for the current to suck the vessel beneath the steep rake after the vessel was pinned by the current. A towboat in this broadside position – held fast by the rushing current – is virtually impossible to recover, according to industry reports. Witnesses reported that the master attempted to exit the pilothouse but could not do so in time. His body had not been found at press time, nor had the vessel been raised.

A downstreaming maneuver involves approaching a moored barge from upstream, landing with tow knees square against the upstream end of the barge, to discharge crew or face up to a barge. The maneuver, when executed during periods of high water, has resulted in the deaths of at least two towboat captains in the last several years, prompting the American Waterways Operators to educate its members on the maneuver’s potential dangers. Most recently, the 65-foot towboat Mary Bruke was dragged under a barge in St. Louis harbor in March 1997, an incident that killed the captain. And three crew were killed in May 1995 aboard the 65-foot towboat Valley Sunshine when it was sunk against the upstream end of a barge.

The Coast Guard, executing a Captain-of-the-Port order for the area around St. Louis, had issued an advisory about high-water levels, as it does following periods of all high water, according to Rock. The advisory warns that vessels should have a minimum of 250 hp per 1,500 tons of cargo. The advisory includes specific cautions against performing downstreaming maneuvers for vessels of 2,000 hp or less, and advised operators to use extra caution when operating in fleeting areas. The Coast Guard also recommended that fleet operators review their current mooring operations in light of the high water levels on the Mississippi.

Patty Ann was rated for 1,300 hp, according to reports. The Coast Guard issued high-water advisories for the entire Upper Mississippi River, Rock said.

‘I don’t think there’s a mariner out there who doesn’t understand the hazards of high water. But I’ve got a file full of these incidents. We’ll continue to look for ways to get the word out,’ Rock said.

The wife of a towboat pilot was killed a month later on the Lower Mississippi River at the Motiva Terminal near New Orleans when the towboat she was aboard was sucked beneath the rake end of a barge, which had been positioned alongside the terminal. The 44-foot towboat Amy Ann, operated by L&L Marine Transportation, Inc., was dragged beneath the surface at 0015 March 14 as the vessel was being positioned against the barge’s rake.

‘Once it started to flood the tug went down very quickly,’ said Lt. Derek Dostie, investigations officer for the Coast Guard Marine Safety Office in New Orleans. The pilot and his wife escaped the vessel’s pilothouse as the vessel sank. The woman remained under the barge for 20 to 30 minutes, according to Dostie, before being recovered. She was given first aid and recovered breathing and a pulse but died 12 hours later. She never regained consciousness, he said. The pilot surfaced on the downstream side of the barge only to be dragged beneath a second barge just downstream of the first. He was retrieved several hundred yards downstream of the second barge, having suffered abrasions and a sprained ankle.

Two years ago, a study by an American Waterways Operators (AWO)/Coast Guard quality action team on downstreaming resulted in the production of a video and brochure designed to alert towboat operators about the dangers of the maneuver.

‘Downstreaming: Better Safe than Sorry’ is a 10-minute video that graphically demonstrates the right and wrong ways to perform the maneuver. The video also provides safety tips to consider before attempting the maneuver, such as checking the current and river stage, avoiding overconfidence, letting the crew know that a downstreaming maneuver is about to take place, shutting doors and windows on the first deck and watching for warning signs and aborting the maneuver if necessary. Accompanying brochures are also available from the AWO.

AWO produced the video with funding from the Greater New Orleans Barge Fleeting Association, The St. Louis Harbor Association, the Maritime Navigation Safety Association, American Commercial Barge Lines, Capital Marine Supply and Ingram Barge Company.

Copies of the video and brochures have been provided to members of the AWO, the Greater New Orleans Barge Fleeting Association and the St. Louis Harbor Association. Additional copies of the video are $12.95 and copies of the brochures are $25 for 25. Call the AWO at (703) 841-9300. To order videos or brochures, make the check payable to the AWO and send the order to: AWO-Coast Guard Downstreaming Video, The American Waterways Operators, 1600 Wilson Blvd., Suite 1000, Arlington, VA 22209.

By Professional Mariner Staff