NTSB Reports On 2019 Tombigbee Bridge Allision

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) issued a Marine Accident Brief February 26 detailing the agency’s investigation into the March 10, 2019, allision of the mv. Rivers Wilson and the Norfolk Southern railroad bridge over the Tombigbee River near Jackson, Ala.

The Rivers Wilson was pushing six loaded barges at the time of the allision. The impact resulted in an estimated property damage of $4.8 million to the bridge and railway, in addition to $65,000 in damages to the vessel and barges. Rail service across the bridge was halted for 27 hours following the incident. There was no environmental damage, and one crew member reported minor injuries.

The Rivers Wilson, which according to the report was owned and managed by Graestone Logistics at the time and operated by a Parker Towing Company crew, was northbound on the waterway and transporting six barges loaded with direct reduced iron (DRI) from Mobile, Ala., to a steel manufacturer in Tuscaloosa, Ala., on the Black Warrior River.

The Norfolk Southern bridge over the Tombigbee River near Jackson is a vertical lift drawbridge that dates to 1949. The bridge has a total of five piers, with navigation passing between piers two and three. The current bridge—and its predecessor that dated to the late 1800s—crosses the river at a sharp bend, which makes navigating the spans a challenge for mariners. What’s more, the river was in flood at the time of the incident, with the nearest river gage reading 29.4 feet, more than 5 feet above flood stage.

“Norfolk Southern had contacted the U.S. Coast Guard on March 2 and again on March 6 and requested the waterway be closed, since water was above the fender system lights, rendering them inoperable,” the NTSB report said of the 2019 incident. “The Coast Guard issued a broadcast notice to mariners but placed no restrictions on river traffic. Likewise, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers locks at Coffeeville, 26 miles above the bridge, were operational with no restrictions.”

The NTSB report also notes that the Corps installed “four lateral training dikes” just above the bridge on the right descending bank of the river in early 2017. The Corps built the training dikes to prevent bank erosion occurring on the right descending bank at the bridge and to reduce dredging needs on the opposite side of the river. The dikes were designed to push the river’s current away from the right descending bank as the flow approaches the bend and the railroad bridge.

Recalling the transit upriver, the captain aboard the Rivers Wilson recalled the vessel’s engines getting “bogged down” at Mile 26 and again at Mile 79, with forward speed dropping below 2 mph. When the pilot came on watch at about 11 p.m. March 9, 2019, he planned an “abort point” below the bridge if the Rivers Wilson was not able to maintain at least 2 mph. The Rivers Wilson reached the abort point at about midnight “making between 2.5 and 3 mph., and the pilot continued north,” according to the report.

As the vessel approached the open drawbridge, forward motion began to slow. The lead barge was passing under the drawbridge at about 12:54 a.m. March 10, 2019.

“The pilot noticed he was moving about 1.5 mph. to port with no forward way,” according to the NTSB report. “The bridge tender radioed that the pilot would have to ‘make it smoke black to get up through there’ (meaning apply full engine power), to which the pilot replied, ‘Looks like I may be fixing to touch up on you, too.’”

Moments later, the current pushed the bow of the Rivers Wilson’s tow toward the right descending bank and the port aft barge of the tow contacted pier three of the bridge. The impact caused the tow to pivot, breaking facing and winch wires. The lead port barge also struck the bridge. The current prevented the Rivers Wilson itself from moving and from shifting its barges from the bridge. The barges were eventually moved with the help of two Good Samaritan vessels.

The Rivers Wilson eventually continued upriver with two loaded and two empty barges, but a block failure in one of its main engines sidelined the Rivers Wilson just 12 miles above the bridge. After passing its barges to another vessel, the Rivers Wilson returned to Mobile on one engine.

The NTSB reported that the Rivers Wilson had not yet been issued a Certificate of Inspection from the Coast Guard according to Subchapter M regulations, although it was still under the phase-in period. And while the Parker Towing crew aboard the Rivers Wilson were not familiar with that vessel, crew members were well experienced in operating on that stretch of the river. The captain was a 43-year veteran with Parker, while the pilot had 28 years of experience and 11 years with Parker. The NTSB concluded the probable cause of the allision was the pilot’s lack of experience on the Rivers Wilson combined with the high water and unfamiliar current conditions. The agency also said the layout of the bridge was partially to blame.

“The National Transportation Safety Board determines that the probable cause of the contact between the Rivers Wilson tow and the Norfolk Southern railway bridge was the pilot’s decision to navigate through a bridge that was poorly aligned with the channel with an unfamiliar towing vessel in high water and strong current,” the agency said.