NTSB Says Pilot’s Failure To Post Lookout Led To Bridge Allision

A pilot’s decision not to use a lookout on the head of his tow during a bridge transit with reduced visibility led to an allision that caused nearly $1 million in damage, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) found.

The NTSB issued a Marine Accident Brief on the allision May 26.

The accident occurred at about 1:23 a.m. April 13, 2019, when the tow of the mv. Dewey R hit a protection cell on the south side of the CSX Railroad Bridge on the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal, near Summit, Ill., Mile 312.3 on the Illinois Waterway. The protection cell was displaced about 4 feet and impacted the southern concrete pier of the bridge.

The cost of repairs to the barge was $162,104, and the estimated cost of repairs to the bridge protection cell and bridge pier was $813,980.

The Dewey R was towing two barges of vacuum gas oil from a fueling facility in Joliet Ill., with a crew of eight, bound for a fuel terminal in Chicago. The tow was moving at about 5.75 mph. against a 1 mph. current as it approached the bridge, which has a navigation span 133.7 feet wide with a vertical clearance of 19.5 feet. The captain lowered the Dewey R’s pilothouse and turned off and lowered its radars. With the pilothouse lowered, the boat’s air draft is 18.5 feet.

In a post-accident interview, the pilot told the NTSB that he was focusing on a barge that was moored about 1,000 feet past the bridge on the starboard side. The pilot began moving the tow to port as he approached the bridge, in order to pass further away from the moored barge after clearing the bridge.

The pilot said the spotlights on his vessel were reflecting off the light gray paint on the decks of the barges the Dewey R was towing, causing a glare that adversely affected his visibility. He also said the red light located on top of the protection cell was not working. In addition, as the tow approached the bridge, a freight train carrying vehicles passed over the bridge, and the shiny surfaces on the sides of the train cars and vehicles reflected the light from his spotlights and caused a further visual distraction.

When the barge struck the protection cell, a 1-1/2-foot by 12-foot section of the port side of the lead barge’s bow void tank was inset, and several components of the barge’s internal structure in the bow void tank were damaged. The protection cell was extensively damaged with a  fractured sheet pile that split open and exposed the concrete in the cell. Also, several pieces of its fendering system were dislodged. The south corner of the bridge’s concrete pier was also damaged, with an approximate 12-square-foot shallow concrete spall adjacent to the displaced protection cell, buckled vertical posts and damaged fenders.

A post-accident inspection of the red light on the cell revealed that the light was in working order except for damage to the wiring conduit that was likely caused by the allision, NTSB said.

The pilot had about 45 years of experience in several capacities on the Western Rivers and Great Lakes. Although he had only worked for the Dewey R’s operating company for about six weeks before the accident, he had completed company online training classes and took part in drills aboard the vessel. He used checklists that were part of the company’s Towing Safety Management System, and he understood that the company’s bridge transit procedure required him to use his discretion regarding the use of lookouts. He told NTSB he would typically have a lookout on the barge when the barges were empty and the pilothouse was lowered.

“The pilot’s approach to the bridge became more difficult due to: 1) the decreased visibility from the lowering of the wheelhouse, which was necessary to pass beneath the low bridge span; 2) the reduced visibility caused by the reflected glare from the spotlight on which the pilot was relying to see ahead; 3) the passing train crossing the bridge with several reflections; and 4) the pilot’s concern with his next maneuver (to pass a barge moored on the far side of the bridge), resulting in him moving his tow off the channel center,” NTSB said in the Marine Accident Brief. “The pilot had the option to post a crewmember (lookout) at the head of the tow to monitor the passage. A crewmember was available, but the pilot chose not to utilize him as a lookout. A crewmember posted at the head of the lead barge could have spotted the protection cell and communicated its location relative to the tow while the pilot focused on safely navigating through the bridge.”

The probable cause of the accident, NTSB found, was “the pilot’s departure from the centerline of the channel as the tow approached the bridge without a forward lookout to monitor the transit.”