Marquette blames captain, pilot after crane barge hits bridge
Professional Mariner|October - November 2020
Kristin Alexis approached the west span of the Sunshine Bridge near St. James, La., pushing the crane barge Mr. Ervin.
Casey Conley

The pilot at the controls of the towboat assumed the crane standing 136 feet over the water would pass under with room to spare.

Moments later, at 0141 on Oct. 12, 2018, the crane’s A-frame struck the highway bridge at mile 167.4 on the Lower Mississippi River. No one was injured and no pollution was reported, but the impact caused extensive structural damage to the bridge. It closed for seven weeks and required almost $7 million in repairs.

National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) investigators homed in on the pilot’s decision to pass under the bridge’s west span (west section) instead of the channel span with a higher vertical clearance. They identified flaws in the voyage plan, the watch turnover briefing, and the crew’s decision to get underway despite concerns about a seriously obstructed view.

The agency’s report noted shortcomings with vessel operator Marquette Transportation’s internal practices and safety management system (SMS). It also noted that National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) charts used by the pilot on his approach did not provide accurate vertical clearance for the west span.

“Investigators believe that proper voyage planning and accurate overhead clearance calculations would have shown that the west span was not transitable with the crane barge,” the NTSB said in its report.

Based on these findings, the NTSB called on NOAA to update bridge data and charts to include vertical clearance for all navigable bridge spans. It urged Marquette barge hits bridge Transportation to audit to make sure crews understand bridge transit and watch turnover procedures.

In a prepared statement, Marquette said it has updated its SMS and operating processes to clarify voyage planning requirements and the forms its crews must fill out. The company also said it has stepped up its training and internal assessments.

Marquette argued, however, that company policies already in place should have prevented the incident. The statement suggested that blame lies with the captain and pilot aboard the 2,880-hp Kristin Alexis.

“We share the NTSB’s opinion that, given the concerns the captain and pilot had with the restricted visibility resulting from the placement of the crane’s bucket on the barge, they should have exercised their stop-work responsibility, as required by Marquette policy,” the company said.

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