NTSB Releases Report On March 2019 Collision Involving Mv. St. Rita

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) released its Marine Accident Brief (MAB) March 16 detailing a collision that occurred in March 2019 involving the mv. St. Rita and a group of moored barges on the Lower Mississippi River near LaPlace, La. The St. Rita sank in the incident, with all five crew members safely escaping to a barge.

The sinking took place about 2:30 p.m. March 7, 2019, in the Cooper Consolidated LLC fleeting area near Mile 132. At the time of the incident, the mv. St. Rita, according to the NTSB, was in the process of shifting an empty hopper barge from “Block 2” of the fleet across to the left descending bank, where a tow was being built.

At the time, the St. Rita was owned and crewed by Marquette Transportation Company, with “job orders” given by Cooper Consolidated, the NTSB said. Crew members aboard the St. Rita that day included one captain and four deckhands.

According to the NTSB, the St. Rita was working to remove the hopper barge LTD 14161 from Block 2 of the fleet. The captain told investigators the crew was having a hard time moving the barge, which was at the upriver end of the block, with a strong current against it.

Because of the barge’s position in the block and to avoid “downstreaming,” or facing up to the barge with the current, the captain began maneuvering the barge away from the hip with it moored to the St. Rita “on the hip” with a single headline. The captain steered the vessel upstream, since the strong current prevented the tow from crossing the river “without being set down.”

Soon after heading upriver with the barge, the St. Rita’s captain said he noticed the mv. Roger D, another fleet vessel, maneuvering nearby. The Roger D’s captain said that vessel was also crossing over to the east bank.

“Believing that the Roger D had slowed down and worried that it was ‘falling,’ or moving downriver with the current, the captain turned the St. Rita to starboard, and eventually the current grabbed the barge, and he lost control of the tow,” the NTSB said in its report.

The LTD 14161 struck the head of Block 2, with its starboard side pinned again the bows of the barges. Likewise, the current pushed the starboard side of the St. Rita against the LTD 14161, and the vessel began to list under the force of the current. The captain sounded the general alarm at about 2:20 p.m. and announced over VHF radio that the vessel was “going over.”

The NTSB noted that the prompt general alarm gave the four deckhands—two of which had been asleep in their staterooms—time to make their way to the wheelhouse.

“With the St. Rita now listing about 40 degrees and water pouring over the port-side bulwark, the captain ordered the crew to abandon the vessel to the LTD 14161 barge, which remained tied to the St. Rita,” the report said. “According to crew member accounts, the total elapsed time from the sounding of the general alarm to their abandoning the towboat was four to five minutes.”

The mv. Rod C heard the distress call and immediately maneuvered to the St. Rita and took the crew aboard. About the time the crew of the Rod C secured a line to the LTD 14161, the line from the barge to the St. Rita parted, and the St. Rita sank. Within 30 minutes, the Rod C had moved the LTD 14161 to the left descending bank and brought the St. Rita crew to shore.

Salvage efforts of the St. Rita began October 15, 2019, with the vessel removed from the river 14 days later. The loss was estimated at about $1.5 million.

The NTSB noted that while the captain had about 23 years of experience as a lead or relief captain, he had limited experience in fleeting operations. Yet the report also praised the captain for sounding the general alarm “when he felt he was losing control and before the boat listed.” That decision, the report said, “gave the crew additional time to muster and a warning of the dangerous situation. This action mitigated the occurrence of serious injury and loss of life.”

The NTSB concluded the probable cause of the collision and sinking “was the captain’s inexperience in executing a fleeting operation on a single headline in heavy river current conditions in close proximity to the head of a block.”