NTSB Releases Report On Tow Allision With Hale Boggs Bridge

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) recently released its Marine Accident Brief detailing a March 15, 2020, incident that involved the mv. Cooperative Spirit, part of ADM ARTCO’s river transportation fleet, striking the Hale Boggs Memorial Bridge near Luling, La., on the Lower Mississippi River. The Cooperative Spirit was traveling downstream at 1:13 a.m. when the port side of its tow struck a pier of the Hale Boggs Bridge. The Cooperative Spirit was pushing a 29-barge tow at the time.

Following the allision, the tow broke apart, with one of the barges sinking. The Cooperative Spirit and other vessels in the area caught the remaining 28 barges, but not before multiple barges from the tow struck other barges moored at the riverbank. Two barges were later determined to be a total loss. NTSB estimated the cost of damages and cargo to be $1.65 million.

In its report, the NTSB overviewed the Hale Boggs Bridge, which is a “cable-stayed” bridge crossing the Mississippi at Mile 121.6. The bridge has a channel span and an east span, which are both navigable. The channel span is 1,200 feet wide, while the east span is 460 feet wide. At the time of the incident, the Carrollton Gage 19 miles downriver from the Hale Boggs Bridge indicated a stage of 15.3 feet. The current at the Hale Boggs Bridge was 6 mph. at the time of the incident.

The Cooperative Spirit departed St. Louis, Mo., March 6 with a 30-barge tow. In total, the tow and the vessel measured almost 1,200 feet long and 210 feet wide. Four days later, the vessel stopped near Baton Rouge, La., to conduct a crew change. The next day, the vessel stopped in Plaquemine, La., to drop off an empty barge. The vessel stopped again on March 12, this time near Vacherie, La., because “there was not adequate space in the fleeting area at the tow’s final destination of Kenner Bend (Mile 115.8), near New Orleans,” the report stated.

Two days later, on the evening of March 14, the captain aboard the Cooperative Spirit received word that space was available at Kenner Bend. The vessel got underway again just after 11 p.m.. About an hour later, the pilot aboard the Cooperative Spirit relieved the captain for the overnight watch.

The NTSB report details how the pilot used a flanking maneuver to guide the tow around 26 Mile Point. The pilot completed that maneuver about 0.8 miles above the Hale Boggs Bridge, at which time the pilot “brought the throttles to the ahead position and began working to line up the tow to pass through the bridge’s channel span,” the report stated. At that time, though, the stern of the Cooperative Spirit was too near the left descending bank. In fact, the NTSB reported that Automatic Identification System (AIS) data indicated the tow’s heading was shifting to port as it approached the bridge. 

“The pilot said that the current (estimated 6 mph. at the bridge) was setting the tow toward the Hale Boggs Memorial Bridge’s eastern tower pier, so he steered against the current and ‘tried to outrun it,’” the report stated. 

Wheelhouse video leading up to the incident depicts the pilot increasing speed to the center propeller, then both the port and center propellers, in an effort to steer the vessel to starboard. About a third of a mile from the bridge, the vessel’s heading was 124 degrees, but its course over ground was 114 degrees, with the tow continuing to favor the left descending bank and with a forward speed of 7.25 mph. Just before impact, the pilot increased thrust to all three propellers to maximum and steered to starboard. 

“Although the tow’s heading had shifted 3 degrees to starboard by 0111:13, its course over ground had shifted only 1 degree to starboard,” the NTSB stated in the report. “The pilot applied starboard rudder for short periods, and the tow’s course over ground began to turn more quickly to starboard, but the change was not sufficient to avoid hitting the bridge.”

When the vessel’s lead barges struck the eastern pier of the Hale Boggs Bridge, the Cooperative Spirit had a forward speed of near 12 mph.

“The tow immediately broke apart, and the ART1008 eventually sank, stern first, about 1 mile downriver from the bridge, with its bow remaining above the water,” the report stated. “The remaining barges floated freely downriver, some contacting barges moored along the river banks, before they were rounded up by the Cooperative Spirit and other towing vessels that had responded to the incident.”

While two ARTCO barges were deemed a total loss following the incident, the eastern pier of the bridge did not require any repairs.

NTSB noted that the pilot had slept for five to six hours prior to the watch and reported drinking a cup of coffee and feeling alert. Post-accident toxicology tests were negative. The same pilot had been at the helm two months prior when the Cooperative Spirit was heading upriver and collided with the R.C. Creppel. The R.C. Creppel sank, with three of the four crew members dying as a result. The pilot reportedly was “taken off the vessel for a short period” following that incident, according to a company representative. The NTSB noted that the circumstances of each incident were “significantly different,” since the Cooperative Spirit was headed upriver during daylight hours when it struck the R.C. Creppel.

The NTSB deemed the pilot’s decision to primarily increase thrust to “outrun” the current, rather than using his rudders, amounted to “not effectively compensating for the strong current while navigating a turn and approaching the bridge in high-water conditions.”