Insufficient communication, lack of accurate tow size cited as issues in fatal collision on Lower Mississippi in 2020

Cooperative Spirit after the January 26, 2020 collision (Photo: NTSB)

The lack of accurate tow size information and two pilots’ insufficient radio communication led to a fatal collision between two towing vessels in the Lower Mississippi River near Destrehan, Louisiana, according to a National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) Marine Accident Brief released on Thursday, August 26.

Marine Accident Brief 21/16 details the NTSB’s investigation of the January 26, 2020, collision of the towing vessels Cooperative Spirit and RC Creppel. RC Creppel, which capsized in the accident, had four crewmembers aboard — one was rescued and three others were never found.

The accident resulted in a breakaway of a combined 42 barges from both tows, the discharge of approximately 8,000 gallons (30,283 litres) of diesel fuel into the river, and the release of sulphuric acid vapours into the atmosphere.

The collision resulted in an estimated US$3 million in property damage to three vessels and 11 barges. The capsized RC Creppel was not recovered.

Cooperative Spirit was towing 40 barges upriver, and RC Creppel was towing two barges downriver. Cooperative Spirit‘s pilot and RC Creppel‘s pilot agreed to a port-to-port meeting.

RC Creppel‘s pilot communicated the size of his tow; Cooperative Spirit‘s pilot did not.

The barges of the towing vessels collided around 26 Mile Point. As a result of the impact, RC Creppel capsized and sank.

An upbound dry bulk carrier, Glory First, collided with the starboard side of Cooperative Spirit‘s tow.

The NTSB determined the probable cause of the collision of Cooperative Spirit and RC Creppel was the two pilots’ insufficient radio communication before meeting in a bend and not broadcasting accurate Automatic Identification System (AIS) information regarding tow size.

In its report the NTSB said a radio call to the other vessel would have helped both pilots identify each other’s expectations, but neither pilot made a radio call after their initial call to arrange a meeting.

The absence of a radio call or “danger” signal indicates that neither pilot was aware of the impending collision.

Neither RC Creppel nor Cooperative Spirit broadcasted the total overall length of the vessels and their tows to other AIS users. RC Creppel‘s AIS broadcast showed its length at 69 feet (21 metres) rather than its actual overall length of 514 feet (156 metres).

Cooperative Spirit‘s AIS broadcast showed the length at 200 feet (60 metres) rather than its actual overall length of 1,600 feet (487 metres).

The vessels would have had an improved picture nearing each other if either’s AIS included the accurate size of the tows.

The NTSB has previously noted the importance of ensuring that vessels engaged in towing operations broadcast accurate AIS information regarding tow size. Hence, no safety recommendations were issued as a result of this investigation.

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