NTSB Releases Report On March 2018 Towboat Sinking
The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) released its marine accident brief June 13 on the fatal capsizing of the mv. Natalie Jean on the Lower Mississippi River near New Orleans, La., more than a year ago. At the time of the sinking three crew members were aboard the Natalie Jean. Two died in the accident. The mv. Natalie Jean, a 64- by 26-foot towboat with 1,200 hp., was owned by Harvey Canal-based Creole Chief Towing.
In its report, NTSB concluded the probable cause for the accident was “the company’s decision to place an inadequately vetted pilot on board the vessel who did not have previous experience operating the Natalie Jean.”
The accident occurred just after 9:30 a.m. on March 12, 2018, when the Natalie Jean was pushing an empty tank barge upriver through the New Orleans General Anchorage, near the west bank of the Mississippi River. The pilot at the helm was attempting to steer the vessel and tow between two anchored ships when the towboat “became caught on the port anchor chain of the anchored bulk carrier Atlantic Fairy,” according to the NTSB’s executive summary.
As a result, the Natalie Jean was pushed against the bulbous bow of the ship, capsizing and sinking as a result. The tank barge broke away and eventually collided with the ship. The pilot at the helm escaped the wheelhouse and was eventually pulled safely from the river. The other crew members, later identified as Malon Dawsey and Karl Prince, died in the accident. According to NTSB, damage estimates exceeded $500,000.
Events Leading Up To The Sinking
The NTSB marine accident brief uncovered details related to the sinking not previously documented, including the project the Natalie Jean was working on and the background of the pilot at the helm when the accident occurred.
Zito Fleet contracted with Creole Chief to pick up a loaded fuel barge from Mile 105, transport it to Stolthaven at Mile 79 for discharge, then return the empty tank barge to the fleet at Mile 105. According to NTSB’s report, the owner of Creole Chief contacted a number of usual trip captains, but none was available to move the barge. The Creole Chief owner then contacted the pilot, whom “he had met earlier that week at a radar school,” according to the report.
The pilot had more than 35 years experience in the oil field industry and aboard towboats. However, he had retired about a year earlier and had not operated a commercial vessel for around eight months. The pilot “had recently decided to start doing part-time work again,” according to the report. The pilot was in the process of renewing his master of towing vessels (unlimited) license, last issued in July 2013.
The owner of Creole Chief met the pilot at John W. Stone Oil Distribution in Gretna on March 11 to discuss the trip. According to the NTSB report, the owner of Creole Chief told investigators he discussed with the pilot “river stage, station bills, night orders and emergency equipment,” and also gave a “pre-voyage orientation.” The pilot told investigators he “walked around the wheelhouse after coming on board to familiarize himself with the vessel and its equipment,” according to the report. The pilot told investigators he did not review emergency procedures or station bills for abandon ship, fire or man overboard operations.
Soon after, the pilot, a captain and a deckhand, all credentialed masters, departed for Zito Fleet with the pilot at the helm and the captain in the wheelhouse observing, “as the owner had instructed,” according to the report. The vessel retrieved the barge and headed back downriver toward Stolthaven.
The pilot told investigators he was not familiar with the steering system aboard the Natalie Jean, which was equipped with a “double-flanking rudder system” and a control system that “consisted of a short ‘stick’ with a wooden rod taped to the end in order to extend it,” the report said.
After an uneventful trip downriver, the Natalie Jean arrived at Stolthaven between 6:30 and 7 p.m. on March 11. The crew secured the barge at the facility, then the captain relieved the pilot, who went to bed between 7 and 7:30 p.m. Shortly before 8:30 p.m. that night, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration issued a flood warning for the Lower Mississippi River in that area, with the river at about 17 feet.
The pilot slept until about 3 a.m. on March 12, then returned to the wheelhouse to relieve the captain. At that time, the pilot said the captain discussed his plans to secure the barge and set up running lights before departure.
“To the pilot’s knowledge, the captain went down to the galley to start breakfast after helping the deckhand, and he was then going to sleep,” according to the report. “Soon thereafter, the deckhand also went down below.”
The Natalie Jean got underway about 5 a.m. with the empty tank barge in tow. The pilot reported that the wind was blowing “very, very hard” as he got underway, prompting him to stay close to the west bank and out of the main ship channel. The wind combined with pushing an empty barge made navigating difficult.
“Electronic data from the Mississippi River Traffic Information System (MRTIS) showed the vessel zigzagging as it transited the straight stretch of river below Algiers Point at speeds between 1 and 2 mph.,” the report said.
As the Natalie Jean approached the New Orleans General Anchorage near Mile 90.1, winds were from the north at 10 to 15 knots, with gusts between 20 and 26 knots. The river was at 16.5 feet and running at 5 mph. At that point, with the wind pushing the Natalie Jean toward the bank and the vessel nearing the Star Fleet fleeting area, the pilot decided to move out of the General Anchorage and into the main channel. Two ships, the Atlantic Fairy and the Vancouverborg, were anchored in the General Anchorage about 550 feet apart. The pilot decided to come alongside the Atlantic Fairy, then navigate the Natalie Jean between the ships and into the main channel.
“When I started my maneuvers to get between the ships, the barge was already cleared the ship that I was alongside, the Atlantic Fairy,” the pilot said in the report. “Half of my boat was cleared, basically, abreast of the anchor chain, and next thing I knew I’m close to the [port] anchor chain. … By that time, my boat and the barge was turning sideways.”
The vessel made a sharp turn to starboard and was pushed “perpendicularly against the bulbous bow of the Atlantic Fairy and also against the bulker’s starboard anchor chain,” according to the report. The vessel heeled to port and, seconds later, capsized. The barge broke free, then the Natalie Jean sank within seconds.
The mv. Earl Gonsoulin was nearby, with crew members responding immediately. They pulled the pilot out of the water between the barge and the Atlantic Fairy.
When the Natalie Jean was salvaged in June 2018, the remains of the captain and deckhand were found onboard.
The NTSB report noted that the Natalie Jean’s general alarm switch guard was found in the down position, with its switch in the off position, though the pilot “stated that he activated the general alarm after he heard the anchor chain contact the towboat.” The pilot said he didn’t hear the alarm sound. The report notes that the owner of Creole Chief said the alarm worked when he tested the system March 11 and that “he always tested it before a voyage.”
The NTSB report focuses on Creole Chief’s adherence to the company’s towing safety management system (TSMS), which was implemented in June 2016. The company’s TSMS required employees to conduct a drug test prior to employment or the company to verify a negative drug test result.
“The owner did not request any pre-employment paperwork prior to the accident voyage but stated that he checked with the pilot’s previous employer, a friend of his, and felt comfortable hiring the pilot to operate the vessel,” the report said.
The company’s TSMS and federal regulations both require post-incident drug and alcohol testing, but that was not done, the report said.
The report noted the company did not follow its own hiring practices and did not adequately assess the pilot’s capabilities and experience prior to the accident. It also noted the pilot’s decision to navigate through the crowded General Anchorage “increased the navigational challenges leading up to the accident.”
“The NTSB determines that the probable cause of the capsizing and sinking of the Natalie Jean was the company’s decision to place an inadequately vetted pilot on board the vessel who did not have previous experience operating the Natalie Jean,” the study concluded.