NTSB: Insufficient Communication, Inaccurate AIS Caused Fatal Collision Between Towing Vessels on Lower Mississippi
The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has identified two pilots’ insufficient radio communication and inaccurate AIS info related to tow size as the probable cause of fatal collision between a two towing vessels on the Lower Mississippi River that killed three people last year.
The collision occurred January 26, 2020 near Destrehan, Louisiana, between the Cooperative Spirit and RC Creppel RC Creppel, the latter of which capsized with four crewmembers on board. Only one was rescued and three were never found in a search that lasted 67 hours.
The NTSB released details from its investigation on Thursday in Marine Accident Brief (21/16).
The accident resulted in a breakaway of a combined 42 barges from both tows, the discharge of approximately 8,000 gallons of diesel fuel into the river, and the release of sulfuric acid vapors, as well as an estimated $3M in property damage to three vessels and 11 barges. The RC Creppel was not recovered.
The NTSB said Cooperative Spirit was towing 40 barges upriver and the RC Creppel was towing two barges downriver when pilots on board both vessels agreed to a port-to-port meeting.
While the RC Creppel pilot communicated the size of his tow, the Cooperative Spirit pilot did not. The barges of the towing vessels collided around 26 Mile Point, cause RC Creppel to capsize and sink. An upbound dry-bulk carrier, the Glory First, collided with the starboard side of the Cooperative Spirit’s tow.
The NTSB determined the probable cause of the collision of the Cooperative Spirit and RC Creppel was the two pilots’ insufficient radio communication before meeting in a bend and not broadcasting accurate Automatic Identification System (AIS) information regarding tow size.
In its report, the NTSB said a radio call to the other vessel would have helped both pilots identify each other’s expectations, but neither pilot made a radio call after their initial call to arrange a meeting. The absence of a radio call or “danger” signal indicates that neither pilot was aware of the impending collision.
“When meeting or overtaking a vessel in a bend, especially where high-water conditions can increase the risk of a collision, early and effective communication is critical to ensuring a successful meeting,” the report said. “The use of very high frequency radio can help to dispel assumptions and provide bridge teams and towing vessel operators with the information needed to better assess each vessel’s intentions.”
The investigation found that neither the RC Creppel nor the Cooperative Spirit broadcasted accurate total overall length of their tows to other AIS users.
According to the NTSB, RC Creppel’s AIS broadcast showed its length at 69 feet rather than its actual overall length of 514 feet, while the Cooperative Spirit’s AIS broadcast showed the length at 200 feet, far below its actual overall length of 1,600 feet.
The NTSB said an accurate size on AIS would have given the pilots an improved picture as the vessels neared each other, reflecting an issue the agency has addressed in the past including as recently as 2016. No safety recommendations were issued as a result of this investigation.
“The overall dimensions of a vessel and its tow may change significantly with each transit. For vessels towing ahead or alongside, the dimensions in AIS should reflect the overall rectangular area of the vessel and its tow,” the report said. “Consistently entering the complete dimensions of a tow configuration into AIS for each transit helps to alleviate possible misinterpretation and thus enhances the situational awareness of all waterway users.”
In 2016, the NTSB issued Safety Recommendation M-16-15 to the U.S. Coast Guard to “work with the Radio Technical Commission for Maritime Services and the American Waterways Operators to modify regulations, procedures, and equipment standards, as necessary, to ensure that vessels engaged in towing operations broadcast accurate automatic identification system information regarding tow size and tow configuration as well as vessel size.”
The NTSB issued similar Safety Recommendations to the Radio Technical Commission (M-16-25) and American Waterways Operators (M-16-24). These safety recommendations remain open. Safety Recommendation M-16-15 is classified as “Open-Unacceptable Response,” M-16-24 is classified as “Open-Acceptable Response” and M-16-25 is classified as “Open – Awaiting Response.”
These safety recommendations need to be implemented to help save lives and prevent maritime tragedies, the NTSB said.
NTSB Correction: The safety recommendation issued to American Waterways Operators is M-16-24, not M-16-25. The safety recommendation to American Waterways Operators is classified as “Open – Acceptable Response.”
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