(Kevin Michael under way at the Melvin Price Locks and Dam after the casualty. Source: U.S. Coast Guard)

Pilot Error Led to Tow Hitting Lock Guide Wall, NTSB Determines

Mike Schuler
Total Views: 3320
March 31, 2022

Pilot error has been determined to be the cause of a tow striking a section of the Melvin Price Locks and Dam in Alton, Illinois, back in March 2021.

The National Transportation Safety Board said Thursday that the pilot of the towing vessel Kevin Michael did not effectively compensate for a strong outdraft and wind while navigating toward the lock.

The 177-foot-long Kevin Michael was pushing 15 barges down the Mississippi River when the tow struck the bull nose of the upstream main lock chamber guide wall, resulting in the tow breaking apart and damaging the dam gates. No injuries or pollution were reported, but the contact resulted in $1.2 million in damages to the barges and dam gates.

The NTSB details its investigation into the March 19, 2021 incident in Marine Investigation Report 22/08 published Thursday.

According to the NTSB, while approaching the upstream lock of the Melvin Price Locks and Dam, the pilot of the Kevin Michael attempted to move the tow near the left descending bank of the river. Despite lining up in a position he felt would provide for a successful approach to the forebay, the tow slowly slid toward the center of the river and contacted the guide wall. The pilot was unsuccessful because the forces of the dam-induced outdraft and wind acting on the tow overcame the developed forces of the Kevin Michael’s engines and rudders from his orders, setting the tow to starboard and toward the center of the river before contacting the guide wall’s bull nose. 

(Annotated electronic chart system (ECS) track history of the Kevin Michael tow over the last 12 minutes leading up to the casualty. Source: Google Earth; Annotated by NTSB)

Based on a safety improvement effort in response to several casualties where vessels contacted the Melvin Price Locks and Dam guide wall, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, in 2018, moved the sailing line—the preferred or recommended route within the reaches of a navigable channel. The sailing line was moved toward the left descending bank of the river to compensate for the outdraft. The pilot’s course was not as close to the bank as the revised sailing line, which left him with less room to compensate for the strong outdraft and high winds as the Kevin Michael approached the locks.

The NTSB determined the probable cause was the Kevin Michael pilot not effectively compensating for the strong outdraft and wind above the dam while navigating toward the lock during a period of high-flow conditions.

“Generally, a sailing line is assigned to a known safe and optimal route used by commercial vessels,” the report said. “A sailing line is developed under considerations of channel depth, current patterns, and any other known obstructions to navigation. In some areas, a sailing line is positioned to address a specific navigational hazard, such as the outdraft near the Melvin Price Locks and Dam. A charted sailing line provides for a safe and successful transit when used as a guide along with the mariner’s own experience and assessment of the existing circumstances.”

The United States in September 2021 filed a lawsuit against Ingram Barge Company seeking $3 million in damages to recover costs from the incident.

Read the report: Marine Investigation Report 22/08

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