Tug crewmembers charged after crane hits highway bridge

The height of the crane would be 110 feet with the boom in the upright position, but when the boom is lowered, the crane is  about 50 feet high. The bridge it struck has an air draft of 65 feet. (U.S. Coast Guard)

Two mariners on a tugboat were charged with negligence and misconduct after a crane they were towing in the Intracoastal Waterway struck and damaged a bridge.

The Coast Guard said the crane may not have been stowed properly on its barge when the crane’s boom struck and damaged the McTeer Bridge in South Carolina on April 27.
The tugboat Sara Kaitlin was pulling the barge along the Beaufort River when the accident happened at about 1930.

The McTeer Bridge, which carries U.S. Route 21 over the river, had major damage to at least five steel beams on its roadway deck. The bridge was closed or partially closed for several weeks.

In May, Coast Guard investigators charged the two crewmembers of the tug with one count each of negligence and two counts each of misconduct. Both are employees of Savannah Marine Services Inc.

One of the men was in charge of navigating the tug when it hit the bridge and the other was the tug’s master, the Coast Guard said.

The McTeer Bridge has 65 feet of air draft at high tide. The crane’s boom is 110 feet high, but it reduces to about half that when properly stowed, the Coast Guard said.
The southbound flotilla involved two tugs, multiple barges, a dredge and the crane. The vessels were traveling from Charleston, S.C., to Savannah, Ga.

Savannah Marine Services owns the 62-foot Sara Kaitlin and the other tug, William Breckinridge. The Coast Guard said CML Equipment Co. owns the barges, crane and dredging equipment.

Earlier in the voyage, the crane had successfully traveled under the Limehouse Bridge, which has similar air-draft restrictions, while the 110-gross-ton Sara Kaitlin was pulling all the equipment.

The crane was then used to hold another barge in place when William Breckinridge joined in to take over the towing of some of the equipment, said Lt. Meridena Kauffman, a Coast Guard investigator at Charleston.

“They have to secure the barge so it’s not mobile when they split the tow,” Kauffman said. “The crane was used to push the spuds down to keep the barge from moving.”
The crane may not have been properly stowed after the two tugs split the tow. Still, at 0920 the crane went under the Dawho River Bridge without incident. That bridge’s air draft is also 65 feet at high tide.

The tide was at its height or just ebbing when Sara Kaitlin navigated under the McTeer Bridge 10 hours later, the Coast Guard said. The 43-year-old tug was also pulling a dredge pipe.

Investigators were probing “details of crane use, stowage procedures and potential tidal influences to determine the cause of the crane striking the McTeer Bridge,” the Coast Guard said in a press release.

Kauffman said the captain of a tug is ultimately responsible for ensuring that all equipment in tow can fit under a bridge. Clear communication between the tug crew and barge crews is vital so that everyone knows the parameters and can operate safely in the waterway.

“Air draft is obviously just as important as water draft when you’re going under a bridge,” she said. “Verifying the air draft and the height of your equipment is very important.”

The two tug crewmembers face a maximum penalty of 12 months suspension of their Coast Guard licenses.

A third mariner with Savannah Marine Services was charged in the Coast Guard probe. The mariner, who was serving as master of William Breckinridge, faces one count of misconduct for operating outside the scope of his Coast Guard license. His license could be suspended for as long as three months.

Joseph Van Puffelen, president of Savannah Marine Services, declined to comment until the Coast Guard completes its investigation. CML Equipment officials couldn’t be reached for comment.

The bridge was closed for five days. During May, state engineers allowed a single lane of traffic to open during rush hours to accommodate commuters from Lady’s Island. At least five 80-foot-long steel beams — each weighing 9 tons — needed to be replaced on the bridge deck. The South Carolina Department of Transportation said the bridge may not be fully repaired until late July.

Kauffman said there was little damage to the crane boom — just a few dents. The Coast Guard said it may charge more mariners and pursue civil penalties against companies and individuals involved.

By Professional Mariner Staff