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NTSB cites inadequate manning, fatigue in fatal sinking of NY tug

Jul 28, 2017 03:05 PM
The tug Specialist is hoisted out of the Hudson River alongside the construction barge it struck at the site of the new Tappan Zee Bridge in March 2016. Three crewmembers on the tug died when it sank.

Courtesy U.S. Coast Guard

The tug Specialist is hoisted out of the Hudson River alongside the construction barge it struck at the site of the new Tappan Zee Bridge in March 2016. Three crewmembers on the tug died when it sank.

Before dawn on a late winter morning, Specialist and two other tugboats approached the site of the new Tappan Zee Bridge with a massive crane barge in tow. Specialist’s mate, then at the controls, believed his tug had enough space to clear a construction barge ahead.

He radioed that the flotilla should go left and then said “go hard left.” Automatic identification system (AIS) data shows the flotilla inching away from the construction barge, N181, after Specialist struck it at about 0500 on March 12, 2016. Specialist took on water and sank quickly in the Hudson River near Tarrytown, N.Y.

The mate, identified as Paul Amon, 63, of Bayville, N.J., died along with Specialist deck hands Timothy Conklin, 29, of Westbury, N.Y., and Harry Hernandez, 56, of Staten Island, N.Y. The vessel was salvaged and declared a total loss.

The accident occurred after a series of problems and delays with the crane barge transit, which began more than 28 hours earlier in Albany, N.Y. National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) investigators determined inadequate manning aboard the tugs, which caused crew fatigue, was the probable cause of the accident.

“According to statements and evidence, crewmembers aboard Specialist and Realist (another tug in the flotilla) had likely not received more than four to five hours of uninterrupted sleep in at least three days leading up to the accident,” the NTSB said in its report.

The crane barge’s massive size, and the tugs’ respective positions alongside the barge, also obstructed the operators’ views, according to the NTSB.

The $4 billion Tappan Zee Bridge replacement began in 2013 and involved more than 100 pieces of floating equipment around the construction site. The navigation channel through the construction zone was 600 feet wide and lighted at the time of the accident.

The 1,700-hp Specialist was dispatched from Jersey City, N.J., at about 0045 on March 9 with the 297-foot Weeks 533 in tow, bound for Albany, N.Y. The vessels arrived at the Albany Terminal at 0740 on March 10. About six hours later, the tug and crane barge began heading south for Staten Island.

Dense fog delayed the voyage during the overnight hours and the weather worsened on the morning of March 11, with winds reaching 35 mph. Entries in the tug’s logbook show Specialist struggled to handle Weeks 533, which is among the largest floating revolving heavy-lift crane barges on the East Coast.

At 0730 on March 11, the tug’s logbook indicates Weeks 533 passed Specialist, and its stern hit riprap along the riverbank, the NTSB report said. Forty minutes later, the barge passed Specialist again, spun the tug around and pulled it downriver with the engines at full throttle. Investigators believe Specialist was underpowered for such a large tow during adverse weather.

At about 0900 on March 11, Specialist’s owner and operator, New York Marine Towing of Montauk, N.Y., sent another company tug, the 1,800-hp Realist, to assist with the tow. Realist, which had a captain, deck hand and female passenger on board, met the two vessels at about 1720 that day. At 2000, the 1,500-hp Weeks Marine tugboat Trevor reached the flotilla.

Specialist took position at the barge’s starboard quarter and Trevor was positioned at the port quarter. Realist was at Weeks 533’s stern. 

Amon, Specialist’s mate, took the helm between 0030 and 0100 on March 12 after the tug’s captain “left his vessel for unknown reasons, crossed the deck of the barge, and assumed the helm of Realist in the upper wheelhouse,” the NTSB said.

Barge N181 was spudded down at the bridge construction site and used as a work platform alongside a concrete bridge pier. Its location in the river differed from the description in a local notice to mariners, according to the NTSB report, but the barge’s aft section was 62 feet outside the navigation channel. After first suggesting there was enough room to clear N181, Amon urged the flotilla to move left.

“Before the flotilla could maneuver away from the spudded barge, the starboard side of Specialist struck the forward corner of N181 at about 7.8 knots, causing significant damage to Specialist above the waterline,” the NTSB report said, noting water entered the tug through open doors. “The ebbing current pushed Specialist into the raked bow of the construction barge and began pushing the tugboat under water.”

Amon escaped from Specialist but returned to assist a deck hand screaming for help. Construction workers told investigators they saw an unresponsive Amon getting swept away after the vessel sank. Crews recovered his body but could not revive him.

Specialist’s captain and the Realist crew did not speak with NTSB investigators due to an ongoing criminal inquiry. Westchester County police declined to comment, citing the active investigation.

James Mercante, a maritime attorney representing New York Marine Towing, described the NTSB probe as comprehensive but “certainly not the entire collision scenario.”

“Hopefully, once the threat of criminal charges is eliminated and all parties are deposed in a civil action, the full sequence of events will be discovered,” said Mercante, a former merchant mariner and Navy Reserve captain who attended the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy at King’s Point, N.Y.

In a series of text messages with his girlfriend, a deck hand on Specialist described a lack of sleep over the three days leading up to the accident. Amon’s daughter, a credentialed mariner on towing vessels, told investigators “the entire (Specialist) crew had been awake the night before the accident due to weather conditions.”

 A deck hand aboard Realist said in a statement to investigators he had been awake more than 24 hours when the accident occurred.

The NTSB suggested exhaustion might explain why Amon initially thought his tug would clear barge N181. “It is unclear how the mate judged the distance, whether by sight or by radar, but with increased fatigue accuracy and timing degrade as does the ability to integrate information,” the report said.

Tappan Zee Constructors, the consortium building the new bridge, declined to comment on the NTSB report, and a Weeks Marine representative did not return a phone message. The accident spurred multiple lawsuits, seeking tens of millions of dollars in damages, that were still pending as of early June.

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