The sinking of a towboat in the Lower Mississippi River near New Orleans last March that killed two mariners is being blamed on the towboat company, in a new report from the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB). A Marine Accident Brief issued by the agency said the company’s decision to ignore its own pre-employment hiring procedures led to an inadequately vetted pilot on board the Natalie Jean, a towing vessel on which he did not have previous experience.
In its report, the NTSB says New Orleans-based Creole Chief, Inc., the owner/operator of the Natalie Jean, failed to ensure that the pilot was familiar with the vessel prior to operating it unsupervised. The owner placed the pilot on board the Natalie Jean even though he had no direct experience with the pilot’s ability. While the pilot did have years of towing vessel experience on the Mississippi River, he had not worked for eight months. 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.
The 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 sank quickly. The barge broke free and collided with the Atlantic Fairy. The Natalie Jean’s captain and deckhand died in the accident.
The report said the pilot’s decision to transit upriver, despite strong winds, his unfamiliarity with the vessel and close proximity to anchored and underway vessels in high-water conditions, “increased the navigational challenges” leading up to the accident. At the time of the accident, the vessel was only making 1 to 2 mph in a strong 5 mph current while pushing a barge upriver through a busy anchorage.
Marine Accident Brief 19/13 is available online at https://go.usa.gov/xmS53.