NTSB Finds Poor Communication Led To 2021 Allision In Louisiana

Just before midnight on January 12, 2021, the mv. Robert Cenac pushed its single empty barge into the CSX railway swing bridge that crosses the Rigolets near Slidell, La. No injuries were reported, and the incident caused no environmental damage. However, the impact caused an estimated $1.1 million in damage to the bridge, which dwarfed the $5,000 in damage the barge incurred.

After conducting its investigation into the incident, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) concluded that poor communication between the vessel captain and the bridge operator likely led to the allision. NTSB also noted the swinging span of the bridge lacked navigation lights, making it more difficult for vessel operators to visually confirm its status.

“Communication between drawbridge operators and vessel operators requesting bridge opening must be clear,” the NTSB said in the report. “Commonly used in all modes of transportation, closed loop communication, in which the sender confirms the message is understood or provides additional information or clarification, ensures the receiver understands the message.”

Incident Summary

The Rigolets is the narrow, winding channel that connects Lake Pontchartrain and Lake Catherine to the open waters of Lake Borgne and the Gulf of Mexico. The CSX railroad, which parallels the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway between the Michoud and the mouth of the Pearl River, crosses the Rigolets via a steel truss bridge that was built in 1928. The 414-foot swinging portion of the bridge opens to provide a 153-foot navigation channel. It takes about 12 minutes for the swing span to fully open or close.

On the night of the incident, the mv. Robert Cenac, a 56.5-foot twin screw towboat built in 2014 and owned by Al Cenac Towing LLC, was pushing a 195-foot empty hopper barge. The vessel left from Heron Bay, Miss., at about 9:39 p.m., heading west along the coast, through the CSX railroad bridge, then back east to the Pearl River and up to Port Bienville. At about 10:30 p.m., the pilot aboard the Robert Cenac radioed the bridge operator to say the vessel was about 30 minutes away. The bridge operator indicated that there were two trains on approach that needed to pass before the bridge could be opened.

With that information, the pilot slowed his approach and, around 10:53 p.m., brought the Robert Cenac’s engines to idle about 2.4 miles from the bridge. “You can’t just sit there a thousand feet away and wait for the bridge to open,” the pilot told NTSB investigators. By about 11:06 p.m., the Robert Cenac had closed the distance to about 1.5 miles. While holding the vessel steady in the channel, the pilot saw both trains cross the bridge. Records indicate the bridge circuit changed from “occupied” to “unoccupied” at 11:34 p.m., indicating the second train had cleared the bridge.

Shortly after 11:30 p.m. that night, the captain aboard the Robert Cenac came on watch, relieving the pilot, who radioed the bridge again as his watch was coming to a close. The pilot told investigators the bridge operator replied with “Cap, where are you at?” The pilot replied, “I’m sitting here waiting on you, about 15 minutes away.” The pilot told investigators the bridge operator replied with “I’m gonna get it open for you, cap.” The pilot left the wheelhouse at 11:45 p.m. The captain told investigators he received a call “at some point” from the bridge operator, stating the bridge was open. Electronic chart data from the vessel indicated it started moving toward the bridge at 11:48 p.m. Anticipating an east-to-west current, the captain lined up “a little to the east.” About a quarter of a mile away, the captain used the vessel’s spotlight to spot the bridge fenders. About 2,000 feet from the span and closing, the captain said he “saw the swing span was not fully open as he said he had been informed and was overhanging the long fender ‘looking as if it was three-quarters of the way open.’” The captain said that, by the time he noticed the bridge wasn’t completely open, it was too late to stop his forward momentum. Records indicate the tow was moving at 7.1 mph at 11:58 p.m. Less than a minute later, its speed began to decrease rapidly. The bridge operator told investigators he saw the Robert Cenac closing in on the span “while his hand was on the lever opening the bridge.”

When the pilot, now in the galley, felt the impact, he returned to the wheelhouse in time to see the barge move away from the swing span, which finished opening. The bridge operator said over the radio, “Alright, cap, the bridge is full open,” which made the pilot think the bridge operator was unaware of the allision. The captain replied, “Yeah, I hit the bridge.”

During the investigation, the bridge operator said he told the Robert Cenac crew he was “starting to operate the bridge and that he would let them know when it was fully open and clear to come through.” The bridge operator said, when the captain said he’d hit the bridge, that he replied, “I was still operating the bridge and it wasn’t fully open and I didn’t clear you to come through yet.” The bridge operator then said he heard the captain indicate a crew member on the barge had said the bridge was open, which led him to go through the bridge.

“In statements given to the U.S. Coast Guard, none of the Robert Cenac’s crew said they were on the barge,” the report said.

The captain stopped the vessel alongside the bridge’s long fender and called his company and the Coast Guard. Likewise, the bridge operator called CSX personnel, who stopped approaching rail traffic. The Robert Cenac got underway shortly after 1:30 a.m. The bridge operator attempted to close the swing span, but it would not close completely. The bridge reopened to full service on March 2, 2021.