Five crewmembers aboard OSV die in collision with containership on lower Mississippi River

Feb 28, 2007 12:00 AM
All five crewmembers of the offshore supply vessel Lee III were killed on Feb. 21 when their vessel capsized following a collision with the containership Zim Mexico III on the lower Mississippi River.

Bisso Marine used two derrick barges to lift the 700-ton Lee III out of the river. The accident closed the river to vessel traffic for five days, as the salvage operation took almost a week to complete.
   Image Credit: Courtesy U.S. Coast Guard

The accident occurred on Feb. 21 at 0520 in the Southwest Pass of the Mississippi River in fog with near-zero visibility. The 178-foot Lee III was heading downriver, and the 534-foot containership was inbound. After the collision, Lee III immediately turned over and partially sank, with just its bow showing at the surface.

The victims were Joseph Harl Brown, 44, of Vidor, Texas; Lawrence Glass, 65, of Mobile, Ala.; Daniel Lopez, 31, of Port Arthur, Texas; Ramon Norwood, 27, of Galveston, Texas; and Capt. Baldemar Villarreal, 54, of Lake Jackson, Texas.

Zim Mexico III was traveling upriver at about 11.5 knots. It's not clear how fast Lee III was traveling. Lee III did not show up on the radar screen of Zim Mexico III until it was less than a mile away from the larger vessel, according to Zim Mexico III's master, who testified at a U.S. Coast Guard hearing held in New Orleans in early March.

Both the master and the pilot aboard Zim Mexico III testified that Lee III was quite close to an oil terminal on the east bank of the river. That proximity to the shore might explain why the supply vessel did not show up on Zim Mexico III's radar until Lee III changed course and started heading toward Zim Mexico III. The master said the radar was set to pick up images 2.5 miles away.

The two vessels did not establish radio contact until 37 seconds before the collision, according to a radio transcript released by the Coast Guard.

The lookout on the bow of Zim Mexico III testified that he didn't see anything hit the ship. The first indication of the crash came when his vessel shook from the impact, he said.

Zim Mexico III is an Antiguan-flagged vessel owned by Rickmers Reederei GmbH of Germany. Lee III is owned by Ocean Runner Inc., of Galveston, Texas.

The Southwest Pass was completely shut down for five days because of the collision, and two-way traffic was not fully restored until March 1. More than 100 vessels, including five cruise ships, were stuck waiting either to enter or leave the Southwest Pass.

River pilots said that the collision points to the need for all commercial vessels on the Mississippi River to carry universal automatic identification systems (AIS). In this case, Zim Mexico III had AIS and Lee III did not. Although the pilots could not say definitively that having AIS aboard Lee III would have prevented the crash, they said the presence of AIS on both vessels would have allowed each ship to be aware of the other much sooner.

"Everybody would have seen him (Lee III) on AIS, and he would have seen everybody else," said Capt. Douglas Grubbs, a pilot with the Crescent River Port Pilots' Association, in Belle Chasse, La.

By Dec. 31, 2004, all commercial vessels over 65 feet and towing vessels 26 feet or more with more than 600 hp operating in the Lower Mississippi River Vessel Traffic System area will be required to carry AIS, according to Lt. Cmdr. Mark Kasper, VTS supervisor. The AIS requirement will apply to OSVs such as Lee III, Kasper said.

Fishing vessels over 65 feet and under 300 tons were originally to be required to carry AIS, but these vessels were dropped from the final rule. Pilots say AIS can only fulfill its potential if all vessels have the system. "If you have a certain segment of vessels left out, it's like a blind spot on a radar," Grubbs said. "If you talk to any pilot, he'll tell you, we don't just want it on ships; we want it on everybody."

Image Credit: Courtesy U.S. Coast Guard

After capsizing, Lee III sank by the stern, but its bow remained at the surface. The collision occured in fog that reduced visability to near zero.

Grubbs said AIS is important because it is a much more effective navigational tool on the Mississippi River than automatic radar plotting aids (ARPA), and is not affected by obstacles such as bends in the river. With radar, small targets can be lost in low, marshy areas of the river or if the vessel is close to the bank or in the shadow of a dock. "With AIS, you can see all that," he said.

The lack of radio contact between the two vessels may also have been a factor in the accident.

According to the radio transcript, the helmsman on Lee III said he had been trying to reach Zim Mexico III on the radio for five minutes. Less than a minute before the accident, the pilot aboard Zim Mexico III replied, "OK, I just heard you ... Can you get to that east side for me?" Lee III's helmsman said, "Uh, I'm uh, pretty much right off your bow. Uh, um, oh shit. We're, I'm right off your bow, right off your bow." The pilot replied, "I'm coming to port." The helmsman's last words were, "He just hit us."

There is disagreement about why the pilot did not pick up Lee III's radio calls until 37 seconds before the collision. Houston attorney Robert Chaffin, who represents Lopez's mother and Villarreal's family, said the pilot was not on Channel 67, the channel used to monitor river traffic.

Zim Mexico III's master testified that the ship's radio was tuned to Channel 9 (used for pilot communication) and Channel 16 (emergency distress channel), which he checked with the pilot. The pilot testified that he was listening to Channel 67 on a hand-held radio for most of the trip.

According to the pilot's testimony, the collision occurred because Lee III made an abrupt, unexpected starboard turn and came right across his bow.

"They would have passed by each other quite easily at the speed they were traveling, had the Lee III not suddenly cut across the bow of the Zim Mexico," said New Orleans attorney Ralph Whalen, who represents the ship's master.

Chaffin said Zim Mexico III was traveling too fast given the poor visibility at the time. He said the collision happened because the pilot failed to monitor his radar or radio. Chaffin said the helmsman of Lee III saw Zim Mexico III first, right off his bow, and made the abrupt turn in a last-ditch effort to avoid the collision.

Whalen said that Lee III made the sharp turn because the helmsman was confused. Lee III had earlier turned around upriver, "because he didn't know the east bank from the west bank," Whalen said.

About an hour before the accident, Lee III's helmsman spoke by radio to the chief mate of the oil tanker Stone Buccaneer. "I'm kind of caught in a situation here; uh, I'm not pretty sure where who's who and what's what here," the helmsman said, according to a radio transmission transcript read at the hearing.

On Feb. 20, the day before the fatal collision, Lee III ran aground on a sandbar, according to testimony from an electrician onboard at the time. Lee III's captain had 28 days' experience on the river. The helmsman only had a few days' experience on the river since being hired by Ocean Runner Inc. in the fall of 2000, according to testimony from an Ocean Runner official.

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