NTSB: Broadcasting only boat size led to fatal towboat crash

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — A fatal head-on crash between barges pushed by two towboats in Louisiana was caused by inadequate communication and failure to broadcast their total sizes, the National Transportation Safety Board says.

The RC Creppel overturned and sank after the collision with the Cooperative Spirit about 5:30 a.m. on Jan. 26, 2020. Its pilot, captain and one of two crewmen were never found. A second crewman was rescued.

The first of two barges pushed by the RC Creppel hit some of the 40 barges pushed by the Cooperative Spirit as they tried to pass each other in a bend of the Mississippi River near Destrehan, said the report released in August.

Destrehan is about 15 miles (24 kilometers) west of New Orleans, but about 20 miles away along the twisting river. The RC Creppel was heading downriver and the Cooperative Spirit was going upriver.

The agency said neither boat’s pilot had entered the total dimensions of boat and tow into the boat’s automatic identification system, even though earlier NTSB reports have pointed out that it’s important to do so.

Each was broadcasting only the towboat’s size: 69 feet long (21 meters) for the RC Creppel, 200 feet (61 meters) for the Cooperative Spirit.

The larger boat’s barges, though, stretched ahead for another 1,400 feet (427 meters) and up to 210 feet (64 meters) across, the report said. That made the total length nearly one-third of a mile.

The boats approaching each other would have had a better picture if either had included its tow size in the broadcasts, the report said.

The RC Creppel’s pilot gave full dimensions — 514 feet (157 meters) by 42 feet (13 meters) — to the Cooperative Spirit’s pilot during a radio call to work out plans, the report said. But, it said, the larger boat’s pilot didn’t provide such information and the RC Creppel’s pilot didn’t ask.

Another call might have clarified what each pilot planned to do, but no subsequent call was made, the report said.

“The absence of a radio call or ‘danger’ signal indicates that neither pilot was aware of the impending collision,” the report said.

It said the Cooperative Spirit pilot assumed that the smaller boat’s pilot “was in a better location for viewing and assessing their meeting, and had plenty of room to move.”

But, it said, “Once in sight of one another, about 50 seconds before the accident, there was minimal time for either pilot to react or respond to the other vessel’s movements to avoid collision.”

Both of the RC Creppel’s barges and seven of the Cooperative Spirit’s broke loose. Then the Glory First, a fully loaded cargo ship, hit the remaining tow. Those 33 barges broke free, too.

The smaller boat’s first barge was empty but the second leaked sulfuric acid vapors. About 8,000 gallons of diesel fuel leaked into the river from the sunk towboat.

The NTSB said estimated damage to the three vessels and 11 of the barges totaled nearly $3.8 million.

The agency noted that in 2016 it recommended that the Coast Guard, the American Waterways Operators and the Radio Technical Commission for Maritime Services work together to change regulations, procedures, and equipment standards to ensure that automatic information systems broadcast tow size and configuration as well as boat length.

That is still not required.

“We generally expect the actions we recommend to be completed within 5 Years; however, these safety recommendations are nearly 5 Years old, and we have not received any updates from the Coast Guard regarding them in more than 4 Years,” NTSB wrote to the Coast Guard on Aug. 20.

The tugboat, towboat and barge industry group described what it’s done toward that end a year ago and the radio commission responded Sept. 7 but the Coast Guard hasn’t updated the board since 2017, according to NTSB webpages.

The Coast Guard is preparing a response including its actions since 2017, Coast Guard spokesman Kurt Fredrickson said in an email Tuesday.

The NTSB emphasizes that it does not assign fault or blame for a marine accidents. Rather, it says, it finds facts without deciding liabilities or rights.