Two Missing After Towboat Sinks In New Orleans
About 9:40 a.m. March 12, the mv. Natalie Jean, a 64- by 26-foot towboat, sank in the Lower Mississippi River at about Mile 90.5 in the New Orleans General Anchorage, near the west bank of the river. The Natalie Jean, owned by Creole Chief Towing, was pushing a single tank barge at the time. One crew member was rescued, while two others are missing and presumed dead.
According to reports, the Natalie Jean appeared to be navigating between two oceangoing vessels that were at anchor when the Mississippi River’s current—which was flowing at near 1.25 million cubic feet per second at the time in that vicinity—pushed the vessel into one of the ship’s anchor chains. The allision snapped the barge’s mooring lines, causing it to break free, and capsized the Natalie Jean. The Natalie Jean floated downriver, stern up, and sank within seconds.
Ron Campana II of Campana Marine Service shot a video just seconds after the Natalie Jean sank and shared it with NOLA.com/The Times-Picayune. The video shows the barge astern of the first ship and drifting toward another, with debris and air bubbles from the sinking vessel on the port side of the barge.
At about the same time, crew members aboard two LeBeouf Bros. Towing vessels, which were moored at Harbor Towing & Fleeting’s Star Fleet facility, heard the alarms and sprang into action. The mv. Earl Gonsoulin headed straight toward the barge in hopes of corralling it.
“It happened within just a matter of seconds,” said Vaughn McDaniel, operations manager for LeBeouf. “Our guys were up, engines running. They were doing their fleet watch just as they’re asked to do during extreme high water, with the Carrollton gage at, give or take, 17 feet.”
McDaniel explained that LeBeouf has a four-tiered safety plan, depending on the river stage. LeBeouf’s fourth-tier safety operations, which take effect when the Mississippi River is at 15 feet and rising, call for engines to be running at all times, extra experienced manpower on duty around the clock, and for vessels to push only one barge at a time. The company also conducts daily conference calls with all vessels.
“We’re not the only company that does that, but we push around hydrocarbons and we work for oil companies, and we take safety pretty seriously,” McDaniel said. “And we’ve got a lot of high water experience.”
With the Earl Gonsolin en route to the barge, crew members spotted something else: a man in the water. “They saw his head bob up and down,” McDaniel said.
With help from a crew boat in the area, the Earl Gonsoulin’s crew pulled the man, later identified as the Natalie Jean’s captain, from the water, then captured the barge as well.
“From the time they left the dock and picked up that man, we’re talking about a few short minutes, just a few extra seconds,” McDaniel said. “Very quick. Very quick.”
McDaniel praised the fast action of the Earl Gonsoulin crew for saving the Natalie Jean’s captain.
“Frankly, those procedures and diligence and the guys buying into that and running a safe operation absolutely saved that guy’s life,” McDaniel said. “Otherwise, he doesn’t make it.”
At the same time, a second LeBeouf vessel, the mv. Julie Gonsoulin, followed the debris trail down river for an hour and a half, aiding in the search and rescue efforts.
Navigation on the Mississippi River in the vicinity was suspended for a brief time during the Coast Guard’s search operation. Crews covered more than 100 nautical miles during the search for the missing crew members.
By March 13, the Coast Guard announced it had suspended the search for the missing crew members, identified as Malon Dawsey and Karl Prince. Also involved in the search were the New Orleans Harbor Police, the Plaquemines Port Authority, the St. Bernard Parish Sheriff’s Office, the Plaquemines Parish Sheriff’s Office, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
The Coast Guard reports the incident is under investigation.