The probable cause of the engineroom fire that resulted in the complete burning of the towing vessel mv. Jacob Kyle Rusthoven on September 12, 2018, was an engine lube oil leak, according to an October 17 report released by the National Transportation Safety Board—but lack of crew measures to activate fuel supply shutoffs and secure open doors ventilating the engineroom contributed to its severity.
At the time of the incident, the Jacob Kyle Rusthoven—an 85-foot-long, twin-screw, 3,600 hp. boat built in 1968 by Jeffboat, formerly known as the Capt. George Brumley—was being operated with a six-man crew by Graestone Logistics LLC under charter with its owner, Rock Ridge Investments. It had picked up a nine-barge tow with limestone at Mile 19 on the Tennessee River and was headed to Baptiste Collette Bayou, La., to discharge cargo.
Earlier in the day on September 12, the captain attempted to flank Mhoon Bend and reported to another vessel that he had struck the bank.
At 09:19, the passing mv. Bill Atkinson noticed that that the port corner of the center head deck barge was underwater and notified the captain of the Rusthoven. Shortly afterwards, the captain of another nearby boat, the Gabe Gattle, noticed smoke coming from the Jacob Kyle Rusthoven. The Rusthoven’s captain then radioed that his vessel was on fire and adrift.
The Rusthoven’s mate was awakened by the smell of smoke, as was the pilot. As he was getting dressed, the lights went out and the general alarm sounded. The mate discovered that the electric fire pump located in the engineroom was not working; a portable pump at the bow could not be used because its hose was on the tow.
The captain instructed the crew to gather on the tow and the crews of both the Bill Atkinson and Gabe Gattle launched skiffs to evacuate the Rusthoven’s crew.
According to the Rusthoven’s mate, once the crew was in the skiff, the towboat’s stern hit the bank and tow wires began to part. The center head deck barge flipped over and dumped its load of limestone, settling on top of another barge. Towing vessels arrived from West Helena to assist in gathering the barges, pushing them against the right descending bank.
The fire was extinguished by emergency responders by 19:13, and the Jacob Kyle Rusthoven was towed to a shipyard in Mobile, Ala., for examination. Investigators found that the fire damage to the starboard main engine was greater than to the port engine. The fitting on the lube oil supply line to the starboard turbocharger was found to be loose enough to be moved on its threads by a finger.
The captain refused drug and alcohol testing, contrary to company policy, and was discharged the following day. All alcohol samples taken from other crewmembers were inconclusive. The NTSB report said investigators “were prevented from interviewing any of the crewmembers and therefore were limited in obtaining all facts related to crewmember actions.”