NTSB reports on towing vessel contact with much-struck bridge

Written by Nick Blenkey
NTSB reports onCarol Jean sinking

Image: NTSB

The National Transportation Safety Board has issued its report on a March 10, 2019 incident in which the towing vessel Rivers Wilson, with eight crewmembers and pushing six loaded barges, contacted the Norfolk Southern railway bridge near Jackson, Ala. As a result, a bridge support was shifted out of position, and the tracks above deflected. Rail traffic was suspended for 27 hours until temporary repairs were made. One crewmember sustained a minor knee injury in the immediate response. No pollution was reported.

The incident caused an estimated $4,842,500 in property damage.

At the time of the accident, the 1958-built, 125- foot Rivers Wilson was owned and managed by Graestone Logistics, though manned by Parker Towing employees on the accident voyage. The six barges were either owned or rented by Parker.


The National Transportation Safety Board determined that the probable cause of the contact between the Rivers Wilson tow and the Norfolk Southern railway bridge was the pilot’s decision to navigate through a bridge that was poorly aligned with the channel with an unfamiliar towing vessel in high water and strong current.

The NTSB concludes its report with this caution;


Seasonal, high current poses unique hazards for vessels working on and/or transiting inland rivers. Water flowing over normally exposed terrain and obstacles or man-made structures can change the expected current. Mariners should thoroughly assess the impact of high current on local hazards, such as jetties and bridges, and their effect on navigation


Reading the full report, several interesting facts emerge, including that he bridge had been struck at least four times between January 2019 and March 2019, including this accident.

A 2015 study by the Corps of Engineers regarding options for the waterway noted that “navigation for this section is hazardous due to the location of the bridge relative to the bend and the accreting sand bar upstream.” It also noted that “the Norfolk Southern railroad bridge presents a navigation hazard” and “bridges should not be located in bends.” Additionally, the study reported that “the bridge piers are poorly aligned with the upstream current by 53° and downstream current by 20°,” and that maneuvering through the area was “difficult,” and with “high flow conditions, the difficulty increases substantially.”

As a result of this accident and other similar incidents, says the NTSB, the Coast Guard, in coordination with industry and the Corps of Engineers, intends to publish a Waterways Action Plan for the Tombigbee River with guidelines for high- and low-water events. A Waterways Action Plan typically defines three action phases (watch, action, and recovery) for each section of the waterway and lists high-water impacts on levees, damage to homes, and unsafe navigation conditions.


The NTSB report notes that the Rivers Wilson completed a dry dock period four days before the accident, on March 6, 2019, with routine propeller and rudder bushing maintenance conducted. A vetting inspection by Parker Towing after the dry dock period and before the charter commenced found deficiencies with the fire pump, smoke alarms, and a leaking stuffing box. Graestone was required by the Parker captain and a vetting officer to effect those repairs before the vessel could proceed. Although the vessel experienced engine issues prior to the accident, there was no evidence of propulsion problems at the time of the accident.

The Rivers Wilson had yet to be issued a Coast Guard Certificate of Inspection (COI) per the new 46 Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) Subchapter M, which was effective on July 20, 2018, for towing vessels. There was a phase-in period for vessels to obtain a COI per the new regulations. The first milestone of the phase-in period was on July 22, 2019 (after this accident), when operators were required to have a COI for 25% of their vessels. The Rivers Wilson was not required to have a COI at the time of the accident. Regardless of the vessel’s COI status, according to 33 CFR Part 136, operators were required to comply with the remaining requirements in Subchapter M by July 20, 2018 for all their vessels.

The Coast Guard inspected the vessel after the casualty and detained it due to watertight and structural integrity issues, among numerous other deficiencies that were not associated with the damage incurred from contact during the accident. Frames had separated from the hull, the head log and pusher knees were corroded, and maintenance records were unavailable. The vessel had yet to return to service as of the publication of the report.

Read the full report HERE

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