Tug captain killed when crane hits La. bridge, crushes wheelhouse

3 Corymichael

A tugboat captain was killed when a barge-mounted crane struck a Louisiana lift bridge and fell onto the wheelhouse.
Capt. Michael Collins, 46, died in the Aug. 14 accident on the Industrial Canal in New Orleans. The U.S. Coast Guard is investigating the cause.

The tugboat Cory Michael was pushing the barge under the open Florida Avenue Bridge shortly after midnight when the double-boom 86-foot-5-inch crane hit the bridge. “The bridge didn’t open up enough. Facts are facts,” said tug owner Todd Eymard of ABC Marine Towing LLC. “It’s a shame Mike had to die.”

The Eighth District Coast Guard does not have any local rules governing operation of the port’s canal bridges, according to Coast Guard spokesman Jonathan Lally. “The information we have is that it is up to the bridge operator how high to open the bridge. The captain will give him the height of the vessel and the bridge operator will determine how high,” he said.

“Clearly the bridge was not raised high enough,” said New Orleans attorney Paul Sterbcow, who represents the tug captain’s widow in negligence lawsuits filed in U.S. District Court against the Port of New Orleans, which owns and operates the bridge, and the owner of the crane.

Sterbcow also brought Jones Act liability action in the New Orleans federal court against ABC Marine Towing of Belle Chasse, La., which has filed for a limitation of liability.

Coincidentally, the tug was moving the barge crane up the Mississippi River to Gretna, about 4.5 miles away, to help move a disabled grain vessel that had collided with a docked ship earlier that morning.

River traffic had been shut down as tugboats came to move the ship, which had lost power, from the middle of the river.

Both the tug and crane were damaged, but the Florida Avenue Bridge reopened to traffic the next day after a safety inspection. It is one of several Port of New Orleans bridges spanning the canal. “We own it and operate it,” said New Orleans port spokesman Matt Gresham, who declined further comment. “The Coast Guard is conducting the investigation and we’re deferring to them.”

The Florida Avenue vertical lift span was the first bridge the Port of New Orleans built in the 1920s to give railroad access across the Inner Harbor Navigational Canal, locally called the Industrial Canal. The bridge has two vehicle lanes.

The 5.5-mile-long canal opened in 1923 to connect the Mississippi River and Lake Pontchartrain. Half of it is part of the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway. Most of the traffic on the canal lined by terminals and industries is made up of towboats and barges.

The original bridge was replaced in 2005 by the current $47 million bright cobalt blue span, primarily funded by the Coast Guard. It has a 156-foot vertical clearance above the low water level in the fully raised position.

After the accident, other vessels in the area helped move the tug to a pier. The New Orleans Fire Department freed Collins from the wheelhouse, but the captain was pronounced dead at the scene.

Eymard said Cory Michael, which was built in the 1970s and had a new wheelhouse that was crushed by the crane, is undergoing repairs at an area shipyard. “There was no mechanical failure,” he said. “The vessel was brought back to my yard under its own power.”

The crane was a Manitowoc 4600 owned by Boh Brothers Construction Co., headquartered in New Orleans. “All we can say is that it was being moved to a job site,” company spokeswoman Ann Barks said.

The negligence lawsuits contend the bridge was not raised high enough for safe passage and that the crane on the Boh Brothers barge was unsecured.

“The mast of the crane hit the bridge’s lift section almost in the middle, which caused the boom to collapse on top of Capt. Collins,“ said Sterbcow, who represents Michelle Collins. “Mrs. Collins is obviously very distraught. They were a close, loving couple.”

Eymard said he understood the pedestal crane is undergoing $1.5 million in repairs. “It never made it to the accident upriver,” he said. Eymard said Collins had worked for him as a tow captain for several years without an accident.

Collins, a resident of Waggaman, La., left behind his widow Michelle, two children and two stepchildren. He was an U.S. Army veteran who had been wounded during active duty and had been employed as a master tugboat captain for 26 years.

Collins was a local trip pilot who liked to work in the area near his home because he was a family man and was respected on the waterfront as a good wheelman, according to reports.

 “We are still investigating and do not have any information to release because we want to do a thorough investigation,” said Lally.

By Professional Mariner Staff