NTSB: Company’s Failure To Follow TSMS Cause Of Sinking

“Having a Towing Safety Management System is no good unless you follow it.” Those words, or variants of them, have probably been spoken at every single meeting on Subchapter M or safety in the towing industry for years now.

The conclusion was underlined by the latest report by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) on the causes of the sinking of the mv. Tom Bussler in January 2019.

On January 7, the Tom Bussler was transiting in light boat condition on the Tennessee River at Mile 15 near Calvert City, Ky., when it began flooding and quickly sank. The two crewmembers aboard managed to escape and were picked up by the passing mv. George Leavell after spending about 25 minutes in the water. The men were were released after being treated for mild hypothermia; there were no spills or other injuries.

After the vessel was raised January 18 and drydocked, a marine surveyor found that the water had entered through several fractures at multiple points in the hull that “appeared to pre-exist the incident.” The captain and deckhand also stated that the bow centerline void had a pre-existing crack slightly above the waterline—as long as the vessel was pushing a tow, that is. When it wasn’t, it was no longer protected from the bow wave and water entered.

The vessel’s damage amounted to $297,368, and it was ultimately scrapped.

The company’s safety management system specified that the port engineer was responsible for developing, enacting and maintaining a preventive maintenance program for the vessel. Captains had to report problems, but it was left to upper management to approve any repairs that would result in the “vessel’s maneuverability being impaired.” The SMS also said any such necessary work should minimize downtime. The end-of-year repair summary in December 2018 listed 10 maintenance issues related to the hull that were reported by the crew.

The NTSB concluded that “the lack of action by the operating company to repair these several known hull deficiencies in a timely manner, once identified by the vessel’s crew, was counter to the guidance outlines in their SMS, and was directly related to the flooding.”