NTSB Releases Report On 2019 Channelview Bridge Allision

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) released a Marine Accident Brief June 22 detailing the September 19, 2019, barge breakaway at San Jacinto River Fleet in Channelview, Texas, and the resulting bridge allision at the nearby Interstate 10 bridge over the San Jacinto River. At the time, the fleeting area was owned by San Jacinto River Fleet LLC and operated by Cheryl K Marine LLC, according to the NTSB.

The incident occurred during the aftermath of Tropical Storm Imelda, which made landfall September 17, 2019, near Freeport, Texas, which is about halfway between Matagorda and Galveston Island.

The storm intensified just before landfall, then tracked slowly across southeast Texas and southwest Louisiana, dropping an incredible amount of rainfall over a three-day period. According to the National Hurricane Center, Imelda went on to become the fifth-wettest tropical cyclone on record for the contiguous United States. Much of the Houston metropolitan area recorded more than 30 inches of rain from Imelda. An area 2 miles south-southwest of Fannett, Texas, recorded a whopping 44.29 inches from the storm, including 31 inches of rain in just a 12-hour period.

Rain from Imelda, much like during Hurricane Harvey in 2017, caused flooding on southeast Texas waterways, including the San Jacinto River in Channelview, where it flows south under the I-10 bridge on its way to the Houston Ship Channel and the Gulf of Mexico.

During those high flows on the San Jacinto River, 11 barges broke free of their moorings at the San Jacinto River Fleet just north of the I-10 bridge at about 11:38 p.m. September 19, 2019. Six of those barges went on to strike some of the bridge’s support piers. There were no reported injuries or pollution, but the allision caused $5.11 million in damage to the I-10 bridge, plus $350,000 to remove the barges, according to the NTSB.

The National Weather Service issued a flash flood warning around 8 a.m. September 19, 2019, for the San Jacinto River, with a forecast rise to 10 to 13 feet at Sheldon, Texas, 10.3 miles above the I-10 bridge. As the day progressed, the Houston-Galveston Vessel Traffic Service (VTS) increased restrictions to navigation due to rising water in the area’s waterways. VTS eventually restricted all barge movements, except for on a case-by-case basis, according to the NTSB. By that afternoon, though, with water levels continuing to rise in Lake Houston, which drains into the San Jacinto River, forecasters updated the projected rise to major flood stage. As a result, the operations manager at San Jacinto River Fleet directed crews to add more lines to barges in the fleet. Following an evening thunderstorm, the crew aboard the mv. Sara K checked the fleet’s tier 3, where the 11 barges were moored, performing a tier check and adding lines. 

Later that night, at just before 9 p.m., the crew aboard the mv. Cheryl K witnessed the 11 barges at tier 3 breaking away. “For roughly the next 2.5 hours, San Jacinto River Fleet towboats and crews worked to control the breakaway barges and return them to one of the tiers, attempting to remove barges from the breakaway group two at a time,” the NTSB said in its report. Crews aboard boats working the fleet were able to secure four of the 11 barges, with one becoming grounded. The mv. JB Bloomer came the closest to catching the six barges that eventually struck the I-10 bridge.

“JB Bloomer attempted to push the string of six barges upriver, but the towing vessels could not hold the barges in the rising floodwaters,” the NTSB report stated. “JB Bloomer’s captain maneuvered away from the barges to avoid being pinned between the barges and bridge.”

Two of those six barges became pinned under part of the bridge, while the other four continued downriver. The Cheryl K vessels, with the help of a Good Samaritan vessel, eventually recovered the loose barges. Dive surveys and damage assessments identified major damage to the protective cells and fendering system for the bridge, along with several columns supporting the bridge.

The Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) closed both eastbound and westbound crossings following the incident. The westbound bridge reopened January 19, 2020, with the eastbound bridge reopening February 15, 2020.

After its investigation, the NTSB determined the likely cause of the breakaway and bridge allision was the dramatic rise in the river’s flow rate and stage due to Tropical Storm Imelda, which “exceeded the capacity of the mooring lines.” 

“Contributing was the operating company not rearranging fleeting area tiers to mitigate the effect of current on barge tiers,” the NTSB concluded.

The NTSB ended its Marine Accident Brief with a call for operators to develop and continuously evaluate severe weather plans, especially as they relate to tropical weather, due to the fact that “severe weather can trigger prolonged periods of weather restrictions in navigable river watersheds and create challenging conditions.”