Marine accidents: What went wrong?

From an allegedly intoxicated bridge tender to a vessel crew traveling near a known underwater hazard, the National Transportation Safety Board’s (NTSB) annual accident report chronicles some unsettling reminders about why things go wrong.

The recently published, amply illustrated “Safer Seas 2014: Lessons Learned from Marine Accident Investigations”  includes 23 reports completed last year covering towing and passenger vessels as well as OSVs, tankers and fishing boats. Towing accounted for nine accidents and fishing for five.

Among the items included is the explosion caused when the 48’x20′ Settoon Towing vessel, Shanon E. Settoon, pushed a 154′ oil barge across a submerged natural gas pipeline causing the pipeline and tow to explode. The captain died a month later from the burns he suffered in the March 2013 accident in Bayou Perot, La.

Another was the sinking of the ship assist tug Kaleen McAllister in Baltimore harbor when it struck the edge of a collapsed pier, flooded and sank within 30 minutes. The probable cause was “the mate’s practice of transiting near a submerged portion of a collapsed pier, a known and charted underwater hazard,” NTSB said.

NTSB chairman Christopher Hart said in the report that they’ve heard that the 2013 edition “is used in crew training and safety meetings both on board and shoreside.” But unlike the 2013 report, they listed a summary of issues “we hope facilitates safety discussions.” Tops on the list are: control system understanding, passenger safety during critical maneuvers, proper maintenance and crew training.

Take the case of the port engine fire on the Marguerite L. Terral, for instance, which was pushing 12 empty barges on the Mississippi River near Hickman, Ky., in June 2012. The six-person crew couldn’t put out the blaze before evacuating onto one of the barges. No one was injured. Damage was estimated at $2.6 million.

NTSB said the Coast Guard issued a safety alert later that year that “emphasized that control switches for fire suppression systems should not be located in the space they are designed to protect.”

While NTSB couldn’t determine the origin of the fire, it spread because of “the crew’s failure to set fire boundaries, shut down the ventilation, and use the onboard fire suppression equipment effectively.”  

And sometimes, despite the actions of everyone onboard, things still go wrong.

The bulk carrier Herbert C. Jackson was cleared for passage through the Jefferson Avenue Bridge over the Rouge River southwest of Detroit in May 2013. While waiting, the master had brought the vessel to a near complete stop, NTSB said.

When the master saw the bridge lower in front of the vessel, he set the engine full astern. He sounded the general alarm so the crew would leave the bow. A minute later, the bridge struck the bow, and the master backed the vessel away from the bridge.

No one was injured. Damage to the vessel was estimated at $5,000. The bridge, a registered national historic structure built in 1922, was extensively damaged, according to the NTSB. A Detroit News report said the bridge would be closed until at least May 2016.

The cause of the allision, the NTSB said, “was the intoxicated bridge tender’s closing of the drawbridge as the vessel began its transit through the open bridge span.”

About the author

Dale K. DuPont

Dale DuPont has been a correspondent for WorkBoat since 1998. She has worked at daily and weekly newspapers in Texas, Maryland, and most recently as a business writer and editor at The Miami Herald, covering the cruise, marine and other industries. She and her husband once owned a weekly newspaper in Cooperstown, N.Y., across the alley from the Baseball Hall of Fame. A South Florida resident, she enjoys sailing on Biscayne Bay, except in hurricane season.

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