NTSB Publishes Marine Accident Brief For 2019 Allision At Plaquemine Point

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) released a Marine Accident Brief June 16 detailing the March 7, 2019, allision between Kirby Inland Marine’s mv. Leviticus and its tow and barges moored at Plaquemine Point Shipyard, located on the left descending bank at Mile 208.5 on the Lower Mississippi River.

The lead barges of the mv. Leviticus allided with barges at the shipyard, causing 11 of the barges to break free. NTSB estimated property damage to the shipyard totaling $520,000, with damage to the tow amounting to $19,500. NTSB determined the probable cause of the incident to be the captain’s decision to allow an inexperienced steersman to navigate downriver through the bend at Plaquemine Point in high-water conditions.

The incident occurred at about 10:20 a.m. as the mv. Leviticus, a 147-foot-long, 2,300 hp. vessel, was heading downriver, bound for Garyville, La., with six tank barges. The vessel was en route from Wood River, Ill., on its usual route to Garyville. At the time of the incident, the Mississippi River in the area was in extreme flood stage. About 20 miles upriver, the Baton Rouge gauge on that day was at 43.4 feet. According to NTSB, the U.S. Geological Survey estimated the river had a flow rate of 1.33 million cubic feet per second, a mean current velocity of 4.1 mph. and a maximum current of 8.7 mph. at the time of the incident.

Plaquemine Point is one of a series of sharp bends in the Mississippi River below Baton Rouge. Complicating high-water passage through the bend is Plaquemine Island nearer the left descending bank. When the current emerges from behind the island, it creates what mariners call “the chute,” which can push vessels toward the right descending bank. Further complicating navigation around Plaquemine Bend is a strong eddy just below the point on the left side.

As the Leviticus approached Plaquemine Bend, the crew coordinated with an upbound tanker, the Atalanta T, to make passing arrangements. The pilot aboard the Atalanta T and the captain of the Leviticus agreed on a starboard-to-starboard passing arrangement, with the vessels meeting at the Plaquemine Ferry Landing on the lower end of the bend. That arrangement required the Leviticus to favor the left descending bank around the bend.

At the helm of the Leviticus was a steersman, with the vessel’s captain and a pilot also in the wheelhouse. According to the NTSB report, the steersman, who was not experienced heading downriver on that stretch of the river, had earlier that day had trouble navigating around Manchac Point about 7 miles upriver. At that bend, the Leviticus got caught in the eddy and the captain “had to instruct the steersman through freeing the tow by using reverse rudder.”

The captain said he again allowed the steersman to pilot the vessel through the more difficult bend at Plaquemine Point “because I didn’t want to mess his confidence up.” The captain told the steersman to “hold the point” in an effort to counter the effects of the chute, with the intent of passing the Atalanta T to starboard. But that maneuver led the Leviticus into a strong eddy, directly toward the Plaquemine Point Shipyard, operated by Chem Carriers, which has both a cleaning plant at Mile 208.5 and a repair yard at Mile 208.3. At Mile 208 is Chem Carriers’ Banta Fleet.

With the lead barges of the Leviticus bearing down on the shipyard’s cleaning plant, the captain took the helm, moving the throttles to full ahead, according to the report. Next, the captain set the starboard engine throttle to full astern a+nd adjusted the vessel’s flanking rudders. Then the captain moved the port ending throttle to full astern. The maneuver, though, came too late. Video of the allision shows the Leviticus, moving at about 9.4 mph., striking a barge at the cleaning plant and then an empty red-flag barge. The impact caused six cleaning plant barges to break free, with the Leviticus pushing them downriver. A minute later, the mass of barges hit the repair yard, setting five of the repair yard’s barges adrift. About five minutes later, two of the cleaning plant barges struck an anchor buoy at Banta Mile 208 Fleet. By then, assist tugs from Banta fleet were working to capture the drifting barges. By 11:15, all the drifting barges were under control, and by 3 p.m., all 11 barges from the shipyard were secured at the fleet.

According to NTSB, 10 of the 27 Plaquemine Point Shipyard employees reported minor injuries requiring first aid. Besides damage to barges, the shipyard lost anchors in the incident and remained closed until the following August “after high-water conditions subsided.” The Leviticus’ lead barges sustained damages, but their cargo tanks were undamaged, with no environmental impact occurring.

The captain aboard the Leviticus had 25 years of experience, and the pilot had 40 years’ experience. The steersman, who had two years’ experience, had logged 668 hours at the helm of towing vessels spread across 186 trips. However, only 12 trips were downbound on Western Rivers, and none of the trips were past Plaquemine Point.

While all crew members aboard the Leviticus tested negative for alcohol after the incident, the captain tested positive for marijuana metabolites (THCA) measuring almostw double the allowed level. Though the presence of THCA does not indicate recent drug use, the captain was nonetheless dismissed by Kirby, and his license was revoked. NTSB did not mention THCA as a contributing factor in the incident.

NTSB concluded the likely cause of the allision and breakaway was “the captain’s decision to continue the training of an apprentice mate/steersman while navigating a challenging river bend downbound and meeting upbound traffic in high-water conditions.”