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Towboat Incident: Captain Lost Control in Strong Current

The towboat Edna T. Gattle. (Source: Terral River Services, Inc.)
The towboat Edna T. Gattle. (Source: Terral River Services, Inc.)

By The Maritime Executive 04-26-2020 07:38:25

The US National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has released a Marine Accident Brief about an accident that occurred on April 24, 2019, involving the towing vessel Edna T. Gattle when the captain lost control of the tow and the vessel and barge made contact with a bridge and piers. 

The Edna T. Gattle was pushing the barge Terral 2 downbound on the Atchafalaya River through the Union Pacific Railway Bridge at mile 41.5, near Krotz Springs, Louisiana, when the captain lost control. As a result of the contact, the barge suffered $26,748 in damages, and the bridge sustained $500,000 in damages and was out of service for three days. No injuries or pollution were reported.

The NTSB determined that the probable cause of the incident was the captain allowing the tow to proceed beyond a safe decision point without confirming the status of the bridge opening, given the strong river current.

Investigators examined the bridge tender’s log for the preceding month. From the time a vessel called the bridge tender, it took, on average, nine minutes to obtain permission from the railway dispatcher to open the bridge. Once permission was granted, it took another nine minutes, on average, to open the bridge. In 28 bridge openings, it took a median 18 minutes between a vessel’s first call to the bridge tender and the bridge opening. On the evening of the accident, it took 27 minutes, but a quarter of the bridge openings took longer than that. So, although the time taken to open the bridge for the Edna T. Gattle was longer than average, it was not unusual. 

There have been several other instances of contact being made with the bridge. On June 9, 2017, the Marguerite L. Terral, contacted the Union Pacific Railway Bridge, resulting in over $4 million in damage to the bridge and the vessel’s tow. Although the captain called the bridge tender to request an opening when the vessel was five miles above the bridge, the swing span was not open when the Marguerite L. Terral arrived. 

Similar to the Edna T. Gattle’s scenario, the Marguerite L. Terral was set to starboard and had to compensate for the current. The NTSB found, in that case, that the probable cause “was the bridge tender’s delay in providing a timely opening of the drawspan, as requested, due to distraction by his other duties. Contributing to the accident was the pilot’s failure to properly compensate for the current during the approach to the bridge.”

The report is available here.