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NTSB: Human errors on towboat, bridge led to fatal crane accident

Jan 27, 2016 04:56 PM
The Florida Avenue Bridge in New Orleans was the site of a fatal August 2014 towing accident in which a crane struck the span and fell onto the boat’s wheelhouse, killing the captain. Federal investigators said the towing crew failed to ensure that there was enough clearance, and the bridge tender didn’t lift the bridge fully.

Brian Gauvin

The Florida Avenue Bridge in New Orleans was the site of a fatal August 2014 towing accident in which a crane struck the span and fell onto the boat’s wheelhouse, killing the captain. Federal investigators said the towing crew failed to ensure that there was enough clearance, and the bridge tender didn’t lift the bridge fully.

A barge-mounted crane struck a New Orleans bridge and fell onto a towing vessel in 2014, killing the captain, after he failed to establish his air draft and ensure that the bridge was raised high enough, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) said. 

NTSB investigators said the tender at the Florida Avenue Bridge did not elevate the span fully when the towing vessel Cory Michael transited the Industrial Canal on Aug. 13, 2014. The crane’s boom wasn’t adequately supported, and it fell onto the boat’s upper wheelhouse, killing Capt. Michael Collins, 46, and causing $2.3 million in damage to the crane and vessel. 

“The impact (with the bridge) caused a series of failures on the crane that resulted in 322,000 pounds of the crane’s counterweight falling into the waterway and the crane boom dropping onto the Cory Michael’s upper wheelhouse,” the NTSB investigators wrote in their September 2015 report. “The overhead and supporting structural framing of the upper wheelhouse collapsed from the impact, fatally injuring the captain. The barge cradle stopped the crane boom from dropping further onto the vessel.”

The NTSB said Collins may have been impaired by prescription medicine, influencing his judgment. 

The crane barge is owned by Boh Brothers Construction Co. in New Orleans. Cory Michael is owned and operated by ABC Marine Towing in Belle Chasse, La. 

In May 2014, the towboat’s steel upper wheelhouse had been replaced with an aluminum structure, the investigative report said. The steel-hulled barge had a lattice-boom crawler crane on its deck and was outfitted with two steel shafts that could be lowered to hold the barge in position. 

On the day of the incident, Boh Brothers placed an order with ABC Marine to move construction barges and equipment from Boh’s facility in eastern New Orleans to the International-Matex Tank Terminal on the lower Mississippi River. ABC dispatched two of its towing vessels, Cory Michael and Troy Jacob, from Belle Chasse. When Cory Michael arrived at Boh Brothers at midafternoon, its crew attached towlines to the crane barge.

As a general practice, Boh Brothers preferred that its crane barges be transported by vessels with wheelhouses at a height-of-eye of 32 feet above the waterline so that “operators in the wheelhouse would have sufficient visibility over the equipment on the barge’s deck,” according to the NTSB report. The crane boom on the barge in this incident extended beyond the forward edge of the barge’s bow, and Boh’s practice was to push these crane barges stern-first, with the towing vessel configured to the barge’s bow. That method protected the boom from damage caused by contact with lock walls, bulkheads and other structures.

Cory Michael’s captain was concerned about the stern-first towing configuration and questioned Boh’s foreman about it, the report said. The foreman said the end of the boom had to be protected, and he said other vessel captains had reported that this approach aided visibility. Cory Michael’s captain went ahead and configured the vessel’s bow to the barge’s bow with the crane boom over the upper wheelhouse. The boat’s senior deck hand later told NTSB investigators, however, that the captain agreed to do that only because he didn’t want to lose the towing job.

In preparing to transport the crane barge that day, Boh Brothers completed a job safety analysis to address potential risks — including pinch points, slips and falls, and welding activity. Staffers signed the analysis, acknowledging they knew the actions required to complete the job.

Boh’s foreman and others secured the crane on the barge to prevent side-to-side movement. The boom was locked into a stowed position with a safety retaining mechanism. The tip of the boom extended 14 to 16 feet beyond the barge’s bow, and the boom was at a 14-degree angle of elevation off the barge’s deck and situated above the cradle. The cradle, a four-legged tower giving the boom’s frame a solid resting point, typically prevents lateral movement of the boom. In this particular transit, however, the boom was suspended above the cradle and wasn’t supported by it.

The Boh foreman who oversaw the barge’s preparation for transit later told investigators that in typical instances when vessel personnel asked about a barge’s total height, he told them 89 feet, though heights were generally closer to 86 feet. The foreman said that in Cory Michael’s case he wasn’t asked about height. ABC Marine’s owner told investigators that he only learned of the crane barge’s height after the accident, when Boh’s assistant general superintendent told him it was 86.5 feet.

Late on the afternoon of the allision, Cory Michael departed with the crane barge from Boh’s facility. The tow stopped at a seawall north of the Florida Avenue Bridge and waited for clearance to enter the Industrial Canal Lock. Troy Jacob, having also been assigned to the job, stopped there too.

At 2342, Cory Michael received clearance and headed toward the bridge. According to the bridge operator, the vessel’s captain first contacted the bridge before midnight, and said he was aligning the tow for passage under the bridge. The captain told the bridge operator less than 15 minutes later that he was lined up and asked that the lift span be raised, as he needed 68 feet of clearance. The operator raised the span to 72 feet. The captain, guiding the vessel from the upper wheelhouse, sent the junior deck hand to the stern of the crane barge to assist him by radio as they approached the bridge. The senior deck hand was off duty at the time. As the stern of the barge passed under the bridge, the crane mast struck the steel framing of the lift span.

At that point, the senior deck hand rushed from his stateroom to the upper wheelhouse but got no response from the captain. He radioed the nearby Troy Jacob’s captain, who guided the senior deck hand via radio to move Cory Michael back to its previous mooring north of the bridge. The bridge operator notified the Coast Guard and the harbor police. The harbor police arrived quickly and were followed by emergency medical services. Boh Brothers soon learned of the incident, and its staff assisted the first responders. Weather at the time was clear with 10 miles of visibility, calm winds and an air temperature of 84 degrees.
 
Shortly after midnight, the captain was taken ashore and pronounced dead. That morning, Cory Michael and the crane barge returned to Boh’s yard for damage assessment.

NTSB investigators concluded that Cory Michael’s captain shouldn’t have agreed to configure the vessel’s bow to the crane barge’s bow in a way that allowed the boom to be unsupported over the upper wheelhouse. The captain failed to establish the correct air draft of his tow and didn’t navigate in a prudent manner. The captain’s judgment was most likely impaired by his use of a sedating antihistamine and a prescription pain medication, the NTSB said.

Oversight of Cory Michael and its captain by ABC Marine’s owner wasn’t thorough enough to ensure that the company’s safety policy was implemented, the NTSB said. Additionally, Boh Brothers’ job safety analysis was ineffective in assessing and controlling all risks while the barge was prepared for transit.

Employees overseeing bridge operations for the Port of New Orleans failed to ensure that the Florida Avenue Bridge was in compliance with Coast Guard regulations and internal guidances, which require the lift span to be fully raised for every vessel’s passage. In fact, the Coast Guard didn’t know that the bridge hadn’t been raised to its fullest extent since it was damaged in 2005 by Hurricane Katrina.

“The bridge in my opinion was at fault for not following relevant laws,” Todd Eymard, president of ABC Marine Towing, said in November. “But I can’t go into details because we have a federal court date set for Feb. 1 in New Orleans, which was pushed ahead from November.”

That civil case is Michelle Collins v. ABC Marine and the Port of New Orleans.

The NTSB recommended that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) revise its regulations to address the securing of crane booms on barges for transit to marine construction and other sites. OSHA’s standards don’t specifically address that task now.

Boh Brothers intends to respond to the NTSB. “It’s important to note that Boh Brothers’ conduct was not found by the NTSB to be a contributing cause of this accident,” company spokeswoman Ann Barks said in November. “We’re in the process of reviewing and considering the NTSB report, which we received on Oct. 16, and we plan to officially respond within their 90-day review period. It would be inappropriate to comment further at this time.”

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