NTSB Reports On New Year’s Day Allision

The probable cause of the contact of the William C with the Rock Island Railroad Bridge protection cell on January 1, 2020, was the pilot’s inability to correct the tow’s position after completing the transit through the previous bridge, in part due to the higher-than-average current speed. That was the conclusion of a report by the National Transportation Safety Board issued November 17.

At half past midnight on January 1, the towing vessel William C was pushing a tow of six loaded hopper barges on the Des Plaines River, near Joliet, Ill., when the tow’s two forward barges struck the Rock Island Railroad Bridge’s protection cell at Mile 287.6. Several tow lines broke, and two barges sustained minor damage. The bridge ceased operations for 10 days, and damages to the bridge’s protection cell were estimated to be greater than $500,000. No injuries or pollution were reported.

Owned by Illinois Marine Towing, the 76.5-foot towing vessel William C was built in 1967 in Grafton, Ill., to serve within the Illinois Waterway. The vessel is powered by two diesel engines, with a total of 1,200 hp.

The Rock Island Railroad Bridge is a three-span, through-truss lift bridge built in 1932 and owned by CSX Transportation. The 557-foot-long bridge spans the river at a 45-degree angle from the east riverbank (left descending) to the west riverbank (right descending).  The lift bridge is normally left in the open position and only closed to allow trains to cross.

To protect the bridge from a potential strike, there are four concrete protection cells with floating fenders connected to a pier placed in front of and along the side of the structure and foundation to absorb and/or deflect the force of a vessel coming into contact with them. The center of the channel under the open bridge is marked with a green light, and each protection cell, pier and support is marked with a red light. The accident pilot told investigators that on the night of the incident, all navigation lights were operating properly.

The flow rate of 6,500 cubic feet per second was considered “very high” and resulted in a 3 mph. following current, but the Mississippi River and Tributaries Waterway Action Plan 2020 did not require any risk mitigation actions. When the flow exceeds 7,200 cfs., a helper boat is required.

The pilot told investigators he had traversed this section of the river many times. He said he corrected for the following current when passing through the Jefferson Street Bridge upstream, after which he had only about 1,200 feet of maneuvering room while approaching the Rock Island Railroad Bridge. When he attempted to swing the boat to starboard, the current kept pushing in the other direction. When he realized he would not be able to avoid the protection cell, he sounded the alarm and put the engines on full reverse, lessening the impact.