A tug owner and pilot were criticised by NTSB for a fatal towboat capsize and sinking
Two crew members died when their towing vessel capsized in the Mississippi River, US, last year because of pilot inexperience. According to the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB)’s report into the accident, the owner of the towboat was also at fault for failing to verify the pilot’s training for such a vessel.
A captain and deckhand died when Creole Chief Inc’s towboat Natalie Jean sank in the Lower Mississippi River, near New Orleans on 12 March 2018. A third mariner survived the accident, which is estimated to have caused US$500,000 of damage.
Natalie Jean was pushing an empty fuel tank barge upriver when the towboat became caught on the port anchor chain of the anchored bulk carrier Atlantic Fairy. This led to the towboat capsizing and quickly sinking, while the barge broke free and collided with the Atlantic Fairy.
Investigators at NTSB discovered that the pilot was unfamiliar with the vessel when he was sailing the towboat upriver in the general anchorage. “The close proximity to anchored and underway vessels in high-water conditions and strong winds increased the navigational challenges leading up to the accident,” said the NTSB in the report, published on 13 June 2019.
“The pilot’s lack of vessel knowledge and experience coupled with high water and strong beam winds placed him in a very challenging situation,” the investigators said in the report. The wind was from the north at 10-15 knots, with gusts of 20-26 knots at the time of the accident.
Another challenge for the pilot was Natalie Jean was only making 1-2 mph in a strong 5 mph current, while pushing a barge upriver through a busy anchorage.
NTSB’s investigation found the pilot had not worked for eight months on the Mississippi River, although he had years of experience.
However, the pilot’s lack of knowledge about the vessel and ability to navigate should have been uncovered by the towboat owner prior to allowing the pilot on board.
“Neither the owner nor the captain was able to assess the pilot’s ability to judge specific operational situations given the limited underway time before the accident,” said NTSB in the report.
Creole Chief placed the pilot on board Natalie Jean even though it had no direct experience with the pilot’s ability.
“The owner of Natalie Jean failed to comply with several of its own requirements including pre-employment hiring procedures,” said the NTSB. “That includes verifying the captain’s training and credentials as well as ensuring the pilot was thoroughly familiar with the vessel prior to operating it unsupervised.”
The Natalie Jean capsize was the second in March 2018 as another towboat, Vincent J. Eymard, capsized and sank near Donaldsville, Louisiana, upstream of New Orleans. The crew escaped from that vessel and were taken aboard another towboat, Ellysa.
In May, NTSB published a report into the explosion and fire on a Bouchard Transportation articulated tug-barge unit in the Gulf of Mexico.