Towboat fire leads to barge breakaway, captain’s dismissal


Federal investigators attributed a fire that left a towboat and nine barges adrift in the Mississippi River — and indirectly spurred the captain’s dismissal — to spraying lube oil that ignited on a hot engine surface.

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) determined the fire aboard the 3,600-hp Jacob Kyle Rusthoven on Sept. 12, 2018, started on a starboard main engine turbocharger. The flames disabled the vessel’s propulsion and steering systems, leaving the towboat and nine-barge tow adrift broadside to the current. All six crew escaped to good Samaritan vessels, but four were later treated for smoke inhalation. The vessel, valued at $1.5 million, was a total loss.

While the cause of the fire was traced to a mechanical issue, the NTSB determined crew inaction allowed the fire to intensify and spread.

“Because the captain did not instruct the crew to activate the emergency fuel shutoff valves, and no one closed the main deck doors, the fire was able to spread rapidly,” the agency said in its report. “Additionally, the vessel was not fitted with a means to secure supply and exhaust ventilation to the engine room.”

Jacob Kyle Rusthoven, operated by Graestone Logistics of Murray, Ky., departed from a Tennessee River terminal on Sept. 8 with nine barges loaded with limestone. The vessels were sailing to Baptiste Collette Bayou, at the mouth of the Mississippi River, via the Ohio and Mississippi rivers.

The captain, who authorities did not identify, came off watch at about 0000 on Sept. 12, yet remained in the wheelhouse for almost three hours as the tow proceeded down the Mississippi River. He returned at 0530 for his scheduled watch as the vessel approached Tunica, Miss. At about 0800, part of the tow hit the riverbank near mile marker 688. River conditions were fast and rising.

“Entering Mhoon Bend, the captain attempted to flank the bend but lost control of the tow,” the NTSB report said. “He then backed hard astern to stop the tow. Nonetheless, the head of the tow struck the bank, causing the tow’s rigging to loosen. He maneuvered his vessel to regain control of the tow.”

The captain continued downriver after contacting the riverbank. More than an hour later, the captain on towboat Bill Atkinson alerted Jacob Kyle Rusthoven that the port corner of the center head barge was underwater. That same captain noticed Jacob Kyle Rusthoven and its tow were losing speed, and then he saw smoke coming from the open starboard engine room door as the vessels passed.

The pilot and mate aboard Jacob Kyle Rusthoven, both off watch, awoke to smoke and the sound of the engines “backing hard.” By the time the pilot reached the wheelhouse, the vessel had already lost propulsion and steering. He told investigators the tow was adrift broadside to the current.

Firefighting efforts were limited. The electric fire pump in the engine room was not working, and the hose for the portable pump was stored on the tow. One crewmember discharged a portable fire extinguisher into the engine space with modest effect. The captain ordered the crew to escape to the tow as conditions aboard the towboat worsened.

Towboats Gabe Gattle and Bill Atkinson dispatched skiffs to rescue Jacob Kyle Rusthoven’s crew. They arrived not long before the towboat’s stern struck the riverbank near West Helena, Ark. Moments later, the center head barge capsized and three other barges broke free. Towboats corralled the drifting barges and pushed the burning towboat against the bank near mile marker 674.

Forensic investigators homed in on the Caterpillar D398 starboard main engine as the origin of the fire. They identified a loose fitting on a lube oil supply line as the fuel source, and suggested the atomized fuel likely landed on a hot engine surface and caught fire. The reason for the loose fitting could not be identified.

Jacob Kyle Rusthoven did not have a fixed fire-suppression system in the engine room, nor was it required to have one. The vessel also lacked safety equipment for crew to fight the fire, and the portable fire extinguisher was no match for the flames. Additionally, the NTSB found, “the vessel was not fitted with a means to secure supply and exhaust ventilation to the engine room.”

Post-incident alcohol and drug screening showed the mate tested positive for codeine/morphine, while alcohol results were inconclusive for the mate and three other crew. The pilot tested negative for all substances. The captain refused to be tested, leading to his termination from a job started just two months earlier.

Graestone Logistics did not respond to a request for comment about the NTSB findings.

By Professional Mariner Staff