Transportation Safety Board Releases Two Accident Reports

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has released a pair of marine accident briefs detailing incidents aboard two towboats, the mv. Ricky Robinson and the mv. J.W. Herron. The incidents took place December 8, 2017, and December 13, 2017, respectively.

The mv. Ricky Robinson, a fleet boat owned by Wepfer Marine Inc., capsized and sank at Mile 732.8 on the Lower Mississippi River near Memphis, Tenn., on December 8, 2017. The two crew members who were on board, a pilot and deckhand, died in the incident.

According to NTSB, the mv. Ricky Robinson departed Consolidated Grain & Barge’s (CGB) fleet at Mile 730 at about 11 a.m. The Ricky Robinson was headed toward Seacor AMH’s terminal, about 4 miles upriver from CGB’s fleet. The NTSB report notes that, at about 11:25 a.m., “the vessel’s course changed dramatically to starboard.” The vessel, which was headed straight toward the left descending bank, slowed from 5.4 mph to 4.4 mph before speeding up to about 7.6 mph. and slowing to 6.5 mph., according to NTSB.

The pilot aboard the Ricky Robinson issued a distress call on VHF channel 10, stating, “We’re going down.” When the pilot aboard the mv. Betsy Ross heard the call, he quickly got underway. According to NTSB, the Betsy Ross’s pilot looked down to make sure his vessel wasn’t taking on water, and when he looked back up, the Ricky Robinson had already gone under.

A dispatcher at Economy Boat Store, located at Mile 735, responded to a distress call from the Ricky Robinson at about 11:30 a.m. on VHF channel 11.

“This is the Ricky Robinson,” said the pilot, according to NTSB. “We are in distress. We are one mile down from you and taking on water. Please send someone.” Representatives from Economy Boat Store boarded a crew boat and headed to the Ricky Robinson’s last reported location. However, the vessel went down before they arrived as well.

Within minutes, a total of four vessels were searching the area. By 12:20 p.m., a search vessel from the U.S. Coast Guard arrived on scene. Soon, state and local response vessels arrived on the scene, with a police helicopter also aiding in the search for the two crewmen. Wepfer also dispatched all available vessels, according to the report.

The Coast Guard requested any surveillance footage from the area, but no cameras captured video of the sinking. There were no eyewitnesses to the sinking. The pilot, who had worked for Wepfer since April 2007, was never found. The body of the deckhand, a 19-year-old who had worked for Wepfer since September 2016, was recovered about a week later when the vessel was raised. The cause of death was drowning.

According to NTSB, the starboard side engineroom door was found to be open when the vessel was raised, although a witness indicated seeing both doors open when the Ricky Robinson departed CGB’s fleet. The starboard side door, according to NTSB, was tied open with a rope to some stairs. “All other main deck doors were found closed,” according to the report. The NTSB noted that the port-side and starboard-side hatches for the “aftermost and forward stern voids” were open, and all other hatches for fuel and water tanks were closed.

The Ricky Robinson underwent an extensive refitting in 2010, during which time “most of its steel hull” was replaced and its beam increased for 22 feet to 24 feet. Pilots and representatives from Wepfer told the NTSB that, while operating the vessel in a lightboat condition against the current, clearing water from the deck typically involved “backing off the throttles, disengaging ahead propulsion, or in some situations backing the vessel.” After the accident, the company supplied the NTSB video of the Ricky Robinson in a lightboat condition headed against the current, with water coming over the bow rail and onto the forward deck.

“When the vessel’s speed increases, the amount of water increases, flowing down the starboard side all the way to the aft deck where the stern voids are located, before eventually clearing from the decks through the freeing ports at the bulwarks,” the NTSB report states.

The NTSB found that the probable cause of the sinking was the “pilot’s decision to proceed with unsecured deck hatches at a speed that resulted in water on deck and flooding of the aft voids. Contributing to the sinking was the company’s inadequate oversight to ensure that crews kept hatches closed while the vessel was under way and that ongoing watertight issues with the voids were addressed.”

Fire Aboard The J.W. Herron

The NTSB also released a report on a fire aboard the J.W. Herron, which occurred December 13, 2017, on Big Bayou Canot near Twelvemile Island, about eight miles north of Mobile, Ala. According to NTSB, Graestone Logistics owned the J.W. Herron at the time of the fire, but the boat was leased to Four Rivers Towing, which crewed and maintained the vessel. The captain aboard at the time of the fire was both the owner of Four Rivers Towing and co-owner of Three Mile Dry Dock & Repair, a Mobile-area shipyard where the vessel regularly operated, according to NTSB.

On the morning of the fire, the captain, engineer and deckhand aboard the J.W. Herron began assembling a tow, which included the mv. Dana Jean, in Mobile Harbor for staging at Twelvemile Island. The crew set out from Mobile Harbor at around 11:40 a.m. The engineer reported water and bearing temperatures and water, oil and air pressures normal during the hour-and-a-half trip between Mobile Harbor and Twelvemile Island. By the afternoon, the crew arrived at Twelvemile Island and began mooring the tow to the bank.

At one point, as the captain was attempting to push part of the tow into the bank, he noticed he lacked thrust and “saw no propeller wash from the starboard side,” according to the NTSB report. At about 1:40 p.m., the deckhand and engineer, who were on the tow, saw smoke coming from the stack fan outlet on the port side. Then smoke began coming out of the port side engineroom door. The engineer and captain ran aft, and the engineer reported seeing a glow on the port side because of the engine and gearbox.

The captain ordered the engineer and deckhand to board the Dana Jean and move it away from the J.W. Herron. The captain pulled the remote emergency fuel shutoffs for the starboard generator and engine, but he was unable to do the same for the port side generator and engine. The fire forced the captain from the wheelhouse at about 1:49 p.m. He then evacuated the J.W. Herron and boarded the Dana Jean. The J.W. Herron’s AIS stopped transmitting at 2:15 p.m.

By the time two fireboats arrived on the scene at 3:10 p.m., the captain said the fire was “past its apex and winding down,” according to the NTSB report. By 4:30 p.m., the fire was completely extinguished. Although the vessel suffered extensive fire damage, its propulsion system remained intact, and no fuel or oil was released.

The forensic fire report conducted after the incident determined that the most likely cause of the fire was a slipping clutch that “ignited lube oil from a ruptured hose on the vacuum canister,” according to NTSB.

The report stated that, because the engineer and deckhand were aboard the barges when the fire began, the fire had spread too quickly before they returned to the vessel to begin fighting the fire. Also, both port and starboard engineroom doors were open, which provided a crosswind that could have fed the fire. The NTSB also noted that firefighting equipment was located within the engineroom space.

Besides the slipping clutch and lube oil leak, the NTSB concluded that “the location of the emergency engine shutdowns and fuel supply shutoffs near the exterior engineroom doors” and the inability to “secure ventilation to the engineroom,” contributed to the fire.