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The National Transportation Safety Board says a towing vessel’s pilot was likely impaired by fatigue or drug use when his tow struck and damaged a bridge on the Intracoastal Waterway in Louisiana in 2021.
The towing vessel Miss Mollye D was pushing six hopper barges on the Intracoastal Waterway to New Orleans in the early morning hours of December 23, 2021?, when the pilot lost control of the tow.
While navigating the channel, the 676-foot-long tow began to swing to port. When the pilot realized the tow was not positioned well, he put the engines in reverse, but the tow then struck the bridge running parallel to the waterway. It seems the pilot never reported the incident to authorities
The pilot told investigators he initially did not see the bridge, nor did he know the tow struck the bridge.
The incident caused water, electrical and gas lines along the bridge to be ruptured, triggering alarms at the utility providers. Workers sent to investigate found the bridge damaged and reported it to the U.S. Coast Guard.
The NTSB said video from a forward-looking camera on the Miss Mollye D captured a vehicle passing over the bridge with visible lights before the contact. In addition, the sudden loss of speed and the visual indication of the barges pitching up would have been clear indicators of the bridge strike.
According to NTSB investigators, based on the evidence, it is apparent the pilot was aware the tow hit the bridge, but he did not report the striking to the relief captain or to the U.S. Coast Guard.
Federal regulations require the operator of a vessel involved in an unintended bridge strike to immediately notify the nearest U.S. Coast Guard office.
The bridge, which does not cross a navigable waterway, was closed to traffic following the contact. The south lane of the bridge remains closed until repairs can be made.
No injuries were reported, but repairs to the bridge were estimated at $2 million.
?The NTSB determined the probable cause of the contact of the Miss Mollye D tow with the Route 182 bridge was a loss of control of the tow by the pilot at the helm of the towing vessel, likely due to impairment by factors such as fatigue or drug use.
According to the NTSB, the pilot and relief captain were standing watch on a 6-hours-on, 6 hours-off rotation, which research has shown leads to shorter sleep duration, more frequent nodding off on watch, and more instances of excessive sleepiness when compared to a 4-hours-on, 8-hours-off rotation. The incident also took place between the hours of 0200 and 0600, which is known to be a circadian low.
A urinalysis submitted by the pilot on the afternoon of the incident tested negative for all screened drugs. However, hair-sample testing conducted five weeks later indicated that the pilot used buprenorphine and fentanyl at some point in the preceding 1 to 2 months before the test. The NTSB said that while the use of either of the drugs could have caused the pilot to be impaired, the specific timing of the drug use could not be determined.
“This casualty underscores the importance of reporting bridge strikes and other casualties immediately after they occur,” the report said. “Traffic over the bridge was not stopped until the utility workers found the damage, hours after the casualty occurred.” The bridge could have failed or severed gas and electric lines could have ignited a fire in the time between the striking and the finding of the damage.
Marine Investigation Report 23-04 is available on the NTSB website.
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