Bridge strike by barge in Louisiana caused by poor communication, NTSB report finds

Photograph of the pusher tug Robert Cenac taken shortly after the January 12, 2021 bridge strike incident (Photo: NTSB)

Poor communication led to a tow striking a railway swing bridge near Slidell, Louisiana, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) said in Marine Investigation Report released recently.

On January 12, 2021​, an empty hopper barge being pushed by the tug Robert Cenac struck the CSX Rigolets railway swing bridge while it was opening.

The bridge sustained damage estimated at US$1.1 million and the barge sustained minor damage estimated at US$5,000. No injuries or pollution were reported.

The pilot of Robert Cenac called the bridge operator at around 22:31 local time on the said date to request the bridge to be opened. The bridge operator informed the pilot two trains had to pass first before he would be able to open the bridge, which normally took about 12 minutes to open fully.

Robert Cenac held about 1.5 miles (2.4 kilometres) from the bridge awaiting further communication from the bridge operator.

According to CSX records, the second train cleared the bridge at 23:34. The captain began his approach to the bridge at 23:48.

The captain told investigators that by the time he noticed the bridge was not fully open, the tow was too close to stop.

Investigators determined the bridge operator did not immediately open the bridge after the second train had passed.

Neither the captain nor the bridge operator confirmed the status of the bridge opening with one another. Their accounts of communication surrounding the accident differed.

Investigators were not able to confirm the accuracy of the statements as there were no audio recordings or witnesses to the communications.

In addition, investigators found the swing span of the bridge was not fitted with any navigational lighting, as required by regulation, to indicate that it was in the open or closed position, nor were navigational lights located at the end of the fenders protecting the bridge piers, also required by regulations.

The NTSB determined the probable cause of the accident was the poor communication between the bridge operator and vessel operator. Contributing to the accident was the absence of bridge span navigational lighting that would have provided the vessel operators with a visual indication of the bridge’s opening status.

“Communication between drawbridge operators and vessel operators requesting bridge opening must be clear,” the report said. “Commonly used in all modes of transportation, closed loop communication, in which the sender confirms the message is understood or provides additional information or clarification, ensures the receiver understands the message​​.”

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