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Engine room fire leads to injuries, barge breakaway in New Orleans

Jul 31, 2018 02:19 PM
Officials are investigating the cause of a fire on the towboat Uncle Robert on May 7. The crew made a hard landing at the Pauline Street Wharf in New Orleans while maneuvering to safety, leading to two barges breaking free and other vessels being struck.

Courtesy New Orleans Fire Department

Officials are investigating the cause of a fire on the towboat Uncle Robert on May 7. The crew made a hard landing at the Pauline Street Wharf in New Orleans while maneuvering to safety, leading to two barges breaking free and other vessels being struck.

A towboat pushing six barges caught fire while underway in the Mississippi River in New Orleans and burned for more than two hours.

The fire aboard the 47-year-old Uncle Robert started in the engine room at about 1220 on May 7. After noticing the blaze, crew made a hard landing at the Pauline Street Wharf across from Algiers Point, Port of New Orleans spokesman Donnell Jackson said.

During that maneuver, the tow reportedly hit a vessel tied up at the nearby Poland Avenue Wharf, injuring three of its crewmembers. Two barges near the docked vessel broke free and drifted into two U.S. Navy Ready Reserve Force ships docked at the complex, the U.S. Coast Guard said.

The Coast Guard and New Orleans Fire Department are investigating the incident. As of early June, the cause was still undetermined.

New Orleans firefighters reached the burning towboat at 1242 and found heavy smoke billowing from below deck. The Port of New Orleans fireboat Gen. Roy S. Kelley responded and directed high-volume water cannons at the flames, New Orleans Fire Capt. Edwin Holmes said.

“The initial attack by the Kelley knocked down a large percentage of the fire, enabling firefighters to make an interior attack to extinguish (it),” Holmes said in a prepared statement, adding that the fire was under control at 1426.

It wasn’t clear whether the fire spread throughout Uncle Robert or remained confined to the engine room. After discovering that water was entering the towboat through an open valve, firefighters shut the valve and prevented the vessel from sinking, Holmes said.

Uncle Robert was pushing six barges loaded with scrap metal when the fire started. The Coast Guard did not disclose the direction the tow was traveling.

According to Alexandria Preston, spokeswoman for Coast Guard Sector New Orleans, Uncle Robert struck AEC Ability II while docking, causing two of the docked vessel’s barges to break free. However, a vessel with the name AEC Ability II is listed in Coast Guard records as a Bahamas-flagged bulk carrier operated by Agriculture & Energy Carriers.

The company did not respond to email messages seeking details about the incident, and the Coast Guard did not clarify when made aware of the discrepancy.

The two loose barges drifted downriver several hundred yards and struck the moored Cape Knox and Cape Kennedy, two Ready Reserve Force ships based in New Orleans. Rodney McNany, a spokesman for the U.S. Maritime Administration, said the ships “have not suffered any mission-limiting damage, and remain in their normal reduced operating status.”

Jackson could not identify the vessel Uncle Robert struck at the wharf. He said the towboat damaged pilings at Pauline Street Wharf during the hard landing. The Port of New Orleans owns that facility and the Poland Avenue Wharf.

The three injured crew aboard the vessel identified as AEC Ability II were taken to hospitals with injuries Jackson described as “very minor.”

Coast Guard records show Alexis Marine LLC of Pierre Part, La., owns the 80-foot Uncle Robert. A man who answered the phone at a number associated with the company said he no longer owned the firm. He provided a different contact number, but a message was not returned.

Coast Guard spokesman Brandon Giles said Sector New Orleans also was having trouble verifying the vessel owner’s information.

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