Failure of towboat company to follow safety policies led to fatal capsizing, NTSB report finds

Image: NTSB
Image: NTSB

A towboat company’s decision to place an inadequately vetted pilot on board a towing vessel on which he did not have previous experience, led to an accident that killed two mariners, according to a National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) marine accident brief issued on June 13.

Marine Accident Brief 19/13 details the NTSB’s investigation of the March 12, 2018, capsizing and sinking of the towing vessel Natalie Jean in the Lower Mississippi River near New Orleans.

In its report, the NTSB says Creole Chief of New Orleans, the owner/operator of Natalie Jean, failed to comply with several of its own requirements including pre-employment hiring procedures that include verifying the captain’s training and credentialing as well as ensuring the pilot was thoroughly familiarised with the vessel prior to operating it unsupervised. The owner placed the pilot on board Natalie Jean even though he had no direct experience with the pilot’s ability.

While the pilot had years of towing vessel experience on the Mississippi River, he had not worked for eight months. Further, 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.

At the time of the accident, the Lower Mississippi River gauge at mile 102 measured 16.5 feet (five metres) and the current was estimated at five mph (four knots). Winds were from the North at 10-15 knots, with gusts of 20-26 knots.

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. The towboat capsized and quickly sank while the barge broke free and collided with the bulk carrier.

Natalie Jean‘s captain and deckhand died in the accident.

The NTSB also says the pilot’s decision to transit upriver in the general anchorage, given his unfamiliarity with the vessel and close proximity to anchored and underway vessels in high-water conditions and strong winds, increased the navigational challenges leading up to the accident.

The report states the pilot’s lack of vessel knowledge and experience, coupled with high water, strong beam winds, and a vessel that was only making no more than two knots in a strong four-knot current, while pushing a barge upriver through a busy anchorage, placed him in a very challenging situation.

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