Four crewmembers escaped from a towboat that capsized and sank in the Mississippi River after snagging on a bulk carrier’s anchor chain.
The 63-foot Michelle Ann was pushing an empty barge near the Baton Rouge (La.) General Anchorage when the vessel ran up onto Iolcos Unity’s starboard bow anchor chain. The incident occurred at about 1100 on March 14 near mile marker 225.5, just south of the Interstate 10 bridge.
Authorities noticed sheening after the 38-year-old towboat sank, although further pollution details were not available. The Coast Guard is investigating the incident but had not determined the cause, according to spokesman Brandon Giles.
“We are still trying to get those facts,” he said a few hours after the sinking.
The Mississippi River and other major waterways had been running high for weeks due to melting snow and strong Midwest storms. The gauge at Baton Rouge measured 43.7 feet at the time of the incident, almost 4 feet above major flood stage.
Authorities throughout the region issued waterway restrictions and temporary closures to mitigate high-water impacts. A day after the incident involving Michelle Ann, for instance, the Coast Guard closed 100 miles of the Missouri River south of Omaha, Neb.
The strong current likely pushed the fleet boat into the 738-foot Iolcos Unity, said D.W. Billiot, who rode past on a crew boat shortly after Michelle Ann became hung up.
“Once a boat gets pinned like that, especially where the current is hitting it broadside, it begins to push that side of the boat down,” Billiot told Professional Mariner. “So the water would’ve crawled over the bulwark, up the cabin, and then rushed into the engine room, eliminating all the buoyancy of the hull.
“At that point,” he continued, “the only thing keeping the boat from completely capsizing is the face wires, which are coupling the boat to the barge. Once those pop, it’s a wrap.”
Billiot noticed the unfolding situation after Michelle Ann leaned onto its port side. He said the port engine room door was open, despite best practices and guidance from most operators to keep doors shut during high water.
“A large plume of smoke (or) steam escaped from the engine room doors,” he recalled, likely from water making contact with hot engine components. “That’s what first caught my eye, and then I realized what I was really looking at.”
Michelle Ann’s crew escaped to the adjoining barge before the towboat sank. Two Marquette Transportation vessels operating nearby responded to the sinking boat and rescued its crew. No one from the fleet boat reported any injuries.
“We are thankful that the crew of the Michelle Ann is safe and are proud that our mariners on the M/Vs J. Andrew Eckstein and St. Phillip were able to respond quickly, leverage their training and help ensure the safety of their fellow mariners in this dangerous situation,” John Eckstein, Marquette’s chairman and CEO, said in a prepared statement.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers deployed a survey boat with sonar capabilities to locate the sunken vessel. Corps spokesman Ricky Boyette confirmed the crew found the towboat on March 14, but he declined to disclose its exact location due to the ongoing investigation.
The Coast Guard closed the General Anchorage during the initial post-incident response. It also shut down the river between mile markers 224.5 and 226 for about eight hours.
Michelle Ann had up to 18,500 gallons of fuel on board, and the Coast Guard confirmed an unknown amount spilled into the river. Response teams from OMI Environmental Solutions and the Coast Guard remained on shore during the initial response due to concerns about river conditions.
DMC Towing of Lafitte, La., owns Michelle Ann. Attempts to reach the company for comment were not successful.