Towboat grounded to avert disaster

The captain of the towboat Omaha was credited with averting a disaster after he intentionally grounded the vessel when it began taking on water in the Missouri River near West Alton, Mo.

The twin-screw boat had bumped an unknown obstruction near Mile 12 on May 30, said McNational Inc., the parent company of Omaha’s operator, Excell Marine Corp.

The Coast Guard said as much as 5,000 gallons of diesel fuel spilled into the river. The vessel may have held as much as 32,000 gallons of diesel and 1,300 gallons of lube oil.

Omaha shown heading up the Ohio River past Cairo Point in October 2007. The vessel was on the Missouri in May when it hit an unknown object and was intentionally run aground. [photo by Jeff L. Yates]

The twin-screw towboat was upbound light-boat, with no barges, when the hull was pierced at about 0130. The voyage came in the midst of high water in the Missouri River. Omaha may have struck a submerged dike or wing dam, said Capt. Charlie Ritchie, McNational’s vessel operations manager. He said the contact created a slight rocking motion, but it was not enough to wake the off-watch crew.

A deck hand reported water entering the generator room. While some of the crew attempted without success to stop the rising water, the captain steered the stricken towboat toward shore. He beached the foundering vessel as other crewmembers secured it to some trees in an attempt to keep it from sinking further out in the river.

The 130-foot vessel settled along the along the left descending shore with the bow, upper decks and pilothouse remaining above water. All seven crewmembers escaped injury.

With the boat swamped and stranded along the shore, some of the crewmembers managed to reach a nearby campground from where they were able to contact the Coast Guard via phone about 30 minutes after the sinking.

Lt. Cmdr. Tim Whalen, of the Coast Guard Marine Safety Office in St. Louis, said he did not know if the vessel’s pilot or captain were able to broadcast a mayday call on the VHF marine radio. “The (phone) call came in to us that they were taking on water and had pushed in on the bank, and we immediately started getting resources out there to pick them up,†Whalen said.

The 2,200-hp towboat is owned by McGinnis Inc., of South Point, Ohio. Operator Excell Marine is based in Cincinnati.

The bottom of the notoriously shallow Missouri River is too sandy and unstable to support locks and dams used on most other navigable inland waterways. Therefore, the river is littered with wing dams, or dikes constructed with rocks and boulders to deflect and control the swift currents and to scour the constantly shifting and shallow channels as it meanders for more than 730 miles between the mouth near St. Louis and the head of navigation at Sioux City, Iowa.

Many of these control structures are not marked and are often barely below the surface, depending on the river’s stage. At the time of Omaha’s accident, the river level was 20.5 feet at nearby St. Charles, Mo.; flood stage is 25 feet.

Within two hours, representatives from several companies operating under the McNational banner were on scene. Ritchie arrived by 0700. Divers plugged the fuel tank vents by 1100 the next day.

Quick deployment of pollution containment booms gathered fuel, which escaped from the tank vents. The owner contracted with Environmental Restoration to work with the Coast Guard in placing absorbent booms in several areas along the Missouri River to prevent any environmental impact if more fuel was inadvertently released during subsequent salvage operations.

The proactive placement of anti-pollution and containment booms along several areas of the Missouri River and double booms around the stricken vessel successfully captured the majority of fuel that leaked out during salvage, the Coast Guard said.

The Coast Guard closed the Missouri River to commercial navigation between Mile 10.5 and 11.7 during the salvage and recovery operation.

Divers and a recovery crew with heavy-lift crane barges and equipment from Okie Moore Diving and Salvage Co., of St. Charles arrived on scene June 3. By the next day, they had secured the vessel and were ready to start diving to prepare it for lifting.

In spite of swift currents and rising waters brought on by severe weather and record-breaking rainfalls along the Missouri and Mississippi rivers, the boat was successfully raised June 10. Excell Marine President Paul D. Klausen said “as much debris as possible has been removed from the vessel in accordance with our Coast Guard-approved salvage plan.†The boat was towed to the shipyard on June 13 and placed on a dry dock for further assessment of damages, he added.

The 55-year-old Omaha had returned to service less than a month prior to the accident. It had undergone a major overhaul and refurbishing project at Hartford, Ill. Omaha was one of a pair of identical shallow-draft towboats designed and built specifically for Missouri River service in 1953 by Parker Bros. Shipyard in Houston. The boats were operated by the former SCNO (Sioux City & New Orleans) Barge Lines Inc., which was also owned by the Parker Bros. After SCNO went out of business in 1979, the boat was owned by two other firms before joining the Excell Marine fleet in 2004.

The company’s newly completed 2,200-hp J.A. Ward has been dispatched from its Ohio River assignments to fill in for Omaha “when river conditions settle down,†Klausen said. The firm also operates the 2,400-hp Capt. Wes Gossett along the Missouri River since purchasing it in April from Magnolia Marine Transport, who had operated it as Grace.

Ritchie praised Omaha’s captain for his quick thinking and swift reaction in intentionally running the vessel aground.

By Professional Mariner Staff