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NTSB Releases Report On Mv. Miss Mollye D Bridge Allision Near Morgan City, La.

The mv. Miss Mollye D, an 86- by 34-foot towboat built in 1961 by Towing Service Inc. in Greenville, Miss., was eastbound on the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway (GIWW) on December 22, 2021, with a tow of six hopper barges, when it struck the Route 182 bridge at about 3:26 a.m.

The Route 182 bridge, a 90-year-old concrete span that runs parallel to and on the north side of the GIWW, is located east of Morgan City, La. It crosses Bayou Ramos, a non-navigable channel that connects the Bayou Boeuf portion of the GIWW to Lake Palourde to the north. At the time of the incident, the vessel’s pilot was at the helm, working the back watch from midnight to 6 a.m.

According to a report by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), shortly after 3 a.m., the mv. Miss Mollye D, operated by Deloach Marine Services at the time, veered to port and stopped across the channel. By 3:20 a.m., the pilot had maneuvered the Miss Mollye D back into the channel and continued eastbound, but just two minutes later the vessel began veering to port again. Then, at 3:26 a.m., the vessel’s port lead barge struck the Route 182 bridge.

Video from a camera mounted forward on the Miss Mollye D’s wheelhouse “showed that the tow’s forward motion stopped suddenly, and the barges pitched upward slightly. After contact was made, the pilot illuminated the bridge with one of the Miss Mollye D’s spotlights for about 1 second,” according to the NTSB report.

Three minutes after the allision, the mv. Philip, also headed eastbound on the canal, passed the Miss Mollye D, with the helmsman aboard the Philip radioing the Miss Mollye D to ask, “Where you goin’ in at?” The pilot aboard the Miss Mollye D replied, “No, I’m just trying to get it off of this.” Over the next quarter of an hour, the Miss Mollye D’s pilot worked to back the tow away from the bridge and get it back in the GIWW, at one point spotlighting the now-damaged bridge for about 6 seconds, the NTSB stated. Once back in the channel, the Miss Mollye D proceeded eastbound.

The pilot neither alerted the U.S. Coast Guard nor reported the incident to the relief captain at 6 a.m. at the end of his watch.

The allision, though, ruptured water, electrical and gas lines on the bridge, which triggered alarms and alerted utility providers, the NTSB stated. Utility personnel sent to investigate “found the bridge damaged and reported it to the Coast Guard,” according to the NTSB report. “Using Ports and Waterways Safety System (PAWSS) data from Vessel Traffic Service Morgan City, Coast Guard investigators determined that the Miss Mollye D tow had likely hit the bridge, and they contacted the towing vessel’s relief captain about 0900.” The relief captain instructed the lead deckhand to inspect the barges, and the deckhand, in turn, found broken rigging wires on both sides of the tow and pieces of concrete on the port lead barge.

The allision caused an estimated $2 million in damage to the bridge and water, electrical and gas utility lines. The bridge was completely closed for three weeks.

The captain told NTSB investigators “there were no factors that made Bayou Boeuf challenging to navigate,” although that portion of the GIWW “was not on the Miss Mollye D’s typical route.” The pilot at the helm at the time of the incident had worked for Deloach Marine Services since 2010. In 2019, he entered the company’s steersman program, in which he logged between 280 and 360 12-hour days steering towing vessels. The pilot received his license as a mate in January 2021 but was subsequently laid off “due to a slowdown in business,” according to NTSB. He was rehired in March 2021 as a deckhand, then promoted to pilot on October 5, 2021. At the time of the incident, the pilot had accumulated two rotations aboard the Miss Mollye D, though the second rotation “was terminated on the day of the casualty,” according to NTSB.

Initial toxicology tests “based on a urine sample collected from the pilot at 1635 on the day of the casualty were negative for all tested-for substances,” NTSB stated, although the Coast Guard ordered further toxicology testing using a hair sample from the pilot. The sample hair was obtained on February 1, 2022, and the test came back “positive for methamphetamine and its metabolite amphetamine, buprenorphine and its metabolite norbuprenorphine, and fentanyl,” according to the NTSB report. The pilot stated he had not consumed any alcohol prior to the allision or during his watch. An alcohol test was not administered due to the time between the incident and the toxicology test.

Regarding sleep, the pilot reported that he would get about eight to nine hours of sleep for every 24-hour period aboard the boat, with the sleep split between his two watches. “He stated that he did not fall asleep during the casualty watch,” the NTSB report said.

The pilot told NTSB investigators that he stopped the boat in the channel just after 3 a.m. due to reports of fog in the area. However, according to the NTSB report, “the pilot did not seek the advice or assistance of the relief captain or shore personnel.” Leading up to the allision, the pilot said he spent about a minute and a half checking a weather report on the electronic chart system.

“The pilot stated that he did not know that the tow had hit the bridge, but the sudden loss of speed and the visual indication of the barges pitching upward would have been clear indicators of the bridge strike,” NTSB stated. “Further, the damage to the bridge was extensive and would have been apparent when the pilot spotlighted the bridge on two occasions immediately after the casualty.”

Probable Cause

While the pilot suggested he was distracted due to checking the weather report, NTSB found that “a more likely explanation of the vessel’s erratic movement and the pilot’s actions before and after the casualty is impairment. Possible causes of impairment include fatigue or drug use.”

The NTSB report stated the 6-hours-on, 6-hours-off rotation used on the Miss Mollye D has been shown to lead to shorter sleep durations and excessive sleepiness. Excessive fatigue can lead to “microsleep,” which is sleep lasting less than 15 seconds. NTSB suggested that a 4-hours-on, 8-hours-off rotation is better in terms of sleep-related fatigue.

Due to the urine test being negative for methamphetamines, “it is unlikely that the pilot was impaired by that drug at the time of the contact with the bridge,” the NTSB concluded. However, the hair sample test, conducted five weeks after the incident, indicated drug use sometime during the preceding one to two months.

“Buprenorphine causes mental and physical impairment, and fentanyl causes confusion, drowsiness, and dizziness,” NTSB stated. “While the use of either of these drugs could have caused the pilot to be impaired, the specific timing of the drug use could not be determined by the hair sample test.”