Two deck hands die when cargo shifts, barge sinks at Arkansas pier

One deck hand was killed and another is presumed dead after a barge carrying steel coils sank while being unloaded at a terminal on the swollen Mississippi River.

Juan Nieves and Nicolas Perez were working in the hold of the barge at the Kinder Morgan facility in Hickman, Ark., on April 8 when the vessel tipped, according to the U.S. Coast Guard. The two men were the only people on board at the time of the accident, which was reported at 1615.

“It appears that some of the coils shifted, which caused the barge to lean over to the side and flood and swamp and sink,” said Capt. William Drelling, commander of Sector Lower Mississippi River in Memphis, Tenn.

The 200-foot vessel was moored to a crane barge, which was moored to a pier barge along the riverbank at the terminal, said Jim Fayard, senior investigating officer for the Coast Guard.

“They moor up parallel and they put the barge they’re unloading to the outside, the river side, and unload it from there,” he said.

Fayard said workers had just unloaded the sixth of the 42 coils aboard when the accident occurred. The barge was carrying 2.9 million pounds of steel — 40 coils weighing about 70,000 pounds each and two weighing roughly 55,000 pounds each. The cargo was loaded in Columbus, Miss., at a facility on the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway operated by Logistics Services Inc.

Nieves and Perez could not be found after the barge sank. A 10-mile stretch of the river was closed as the Coast Guard, Arkansas Game and Fish Commission and the Mississippi County (Ark.) Sheriff’s Department searched for the men. The water temperature was about 50°.

The Coast Guard suspended the search two days later after covering about 40 miles of the river. On April 25, a Kinder Morgan tugboat crew found a body — later determined to be one of the missing deck hands — at mile marker 814, about 10 miles from the terminal.

Rick Gallagher, assistant director of the Arkansas State Crime Laboratory, said the body had been temporarily identified, but authorities were awaiting a DNA match from relatives before a final confirmation. Nieves was from Caruthersville, Mo., and Perez was from Mexico.

Richard Wheatley, a spokesman for Houston-based Kinder Morgan, said the two men worked for the company through area staffing agencies. He said the barge is owned by GATX Corp., leased by Cooper Marine & Timberlands Corp. and operated by American Commercial Lines. Kinder Morgan owns the crane barge and pier barge, Fayard said.

“The coils were destined for another firm. We were just handling the coils at that terminal” and they were trucked elsewhere, Wheatley said.

Fayard said three other people were involved in unloading the cargo: a crane operator employed by Kinder Morgan, a truck driver on the pier barge, and a worker from a staffing agency who was guiding the coils to the truck with a tagline. No injuries were reported.

The river was not at flood stage when the barge sank, but it was running at a high flow rate, Drelling said. Skies were partly cloudy, with winds of 15 mph gusting to 23 mph, according to data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration station at Memphis International Airport.

Drelling said he could not comment on whether the river conditions were a factor in the accident, citing ongoing investigations by the Coast Guard and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. The conditions did restrict the search effort, however.

“The river was just full of debris. … There had been a lot of rain and there was a lot of water coming downriver, faster currents,” he said. “The small boats couldn’t operate safely at night, so we had some towing vessels out there searching throughout. It was just too dangerous for our boats to be in the water at night, so we would pull them out and launch them during the daytime.”

The barge was raised two weeks later by Big River Ship Builders & Salvage of Vicksburg, Miss. The 36 steel coils still aboard when the barge sank were also recovered.

Wheatley declined to comment further on the accident, saying it was still under investigation.

By Professional Mariner Staff