Pilot Error Blamed In Mel Price Lock Allision

Pilot error was responsible for an incident occurring March 19, 2021, in which a tow pushed by the towing vessel mv. Kevin Michael struck part of the lock chamber guide wall of the Melvin Price Lock and Dam in Alton, Ill., the National Transportation Safety Board found.

On that date, the mv. Kevin Michael was transiting downriver on the Mississippi River with a crew of nine pushing a 15-barge tow when the tow struck the bullnose of the upstream main lock chamber guide wall at 11:38 a.m. The contact caused the tow to break apart. Eight barges drifted into the forebay area north of dam gates 1 and 2, with one barge entering the open main lock chamber. Seven barges drifted into dam gates 3–9. Following the barge breakaway, the lock was closed to traffic. Nearby towing vessels rounded up the barges. The lock reopened the next day, March 20, at 7:50 p.m.. The lock closure delayed seven southbound and three northbound tows. Six barges incurred some damage, but the Kevin Michael was not damaged.

Total damages to the barge and dam gates were estimated at $1,172,227. No injuries or pollution were reported.

At the time of the casualty, the river gage at the dam measured 22.8 feet and was rising, and all nine dam gates were raised above the water. The Waterways Action Plan for the Upper Mississippi River defined this river level as the high-water “watch” phase, which began when the gage measured 21 feet. During this phase of rising water, the WAP encourages towboat operators to 1) be experienced in high-water operation, and 2) use caution in all passing and meeting situations.

The 177-foot-long Kevin Michael was a steel-constructed line-haul boat built in 1957 by Nashville Bridge Company in Nashville, Tenn., and had been operated by Hamm’s Frontier Marine LLC since 2020. 

Corps Studied Strikes At Lock

The Corps had conducted a case study in 2018 to understand how vessels approached the Melvin Price Locks and Dam at varying river stages and water flow rates. The study noted there were 11 downbound strikes involving tows with the facility. Of those, six occurred when the water was flowing over the dam at a rate of about 250,000 cubic feet per second. Those 11 events occurred during a year when Melvin Price handled more than 6,200 lockages. During that year, the Melvin Price Locks and Dam was within the top five busiest locks in terms of barges handled across the inland waterway system. 

In 2018, the Corps of Engineers changed its published “sailing line,” or recommended route into the lock, toward the left descending bank to compensate for outdraft or current drift pushing a tow sideways when approaching the lock. The NTSB concluded that, “[t]hough the pilot was unaware that the Corps of Engineers had addressed the risk from the outdraft by moving the sailing line, he had made many successful transits through the Melvin Price Locks and Dam since 2018. Although his course, which was based on experience and knowledge, was closer to the bank than the original sailing line, it was not as close to the bank as the revised sailing line, which left the Kevin Michael’s pilot with less room to compensate for the strong outdraft and high winds as the tow approached the locks.”

Following the revised sailing line would have ensured a safe transit, the report concluded.