Towing Vessel Sinks After Collision With Moored Barge Causing Fatalities

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The NTSB reports of the collision and subsequent sinking of Towing vessel Specialist.

Specialist collides moored barge

About 0500 eastern standard time on March 12, 2016, the towing vessel Specialist, southbound on the Hudson River and towing a tower crane barge with two other tugboats, struck a spudded/moored construction barge alongside a concrete pier at the new Tappan Zee Bridge construction site near Tarrytown, New York.

The Specialist subsequently sank, resulting in the deaths of three crew members.

The Specialist with four crew members on board, was towing the 297-foot-long, 90-foot-wide tower crane barge Weeks 533 from Albany to Staten Island, New York.

The crane was the largest floating revolving heavy lift crane on the east coast and was taller than the wheelhouses of the tows pushing it, obstructing their visibility.

Realist to the rescue

On the morning of March 11, another tugboat―the Realist, operated by the same company as the Specialist―was contracted to assist the Specialist as the weather conditions were deteriorating and the company was concerned about the progress of the tow.

During the previous several hours, the Specialist had encountered high winds and currents, which resulted in the tug and barge having difficulty maneuvering and being spun around. The Realist departed Staten Island and, at 1720 on March 11, joined the Specialist tow on the Hudson River.

The Specialist was positioned on the starboard quarter of the crane barge, and the Realist was positioned on the barge’s stern. About 2000, another company’s tugboat, the Trevor, arrived with four crewmembers and was positioned on the port quarter of the barge.

Together, the three tugboats―with the Realist as the lead tugboat― began pushing the barge southbound at about 5 knots. The crews of the Realist and the Specialist communicated with one another throughout the evening on VHF radio.

At some time between 0030 and 0100 on March 12, the captain of the Specialist left his vessel for unknown reasons, crossed the deck of the barge, and assumed the helm of the Realist in the upper wheelhouse.

Clearance to get around barge

The Specialist mate was left to navigate the vessel. The weather had subsided, with clear conditions and winds about 5 knots.

As the Weeks 533 flotilla approached the Tappan Zee Bridge construction area, where other work barges/ platforms were positioned in the Hudson River, the flotilla speed was about 8 knots with a following current estimated at 2 to 3.5 knots.

Initially, the Specialist mate indicated to the other tugboats that the tow had enough clearance to get around the construction barge. Later he radioed the flotilla that they did not have enough room to transit past the barges.

Mate and deckhands drown

He said to the other tugboat operators, “It’s looking tight, go left . . . go hard left.” Before the flotilla could maneuver away from the construction barges, the Specialist struck a stationary work barge, causing significant damage to the tugboat above the waterline.

The Specialist’s mate, who had been at the helm jumped onto the construction barge after the collision. The current pushed the Specialist into the raked bow of the construction barge and began pushing the tugboat under water.

The mate returned to the Specialist to help a deckhand who was shouting for help and trapped inside The Specialist took on water through open doors and rapidly sank with the mate and two deckhands aboard.

After the vessel sank, workers from the construction barge saw the mate in the water, being swept away by the current. They threw life rings toward him, but he was unresponsive.

Rescue operations were futile

A nearby rescue boat recovered the mate about 100 yards from the accident site and rushed him to shore; attempts to revive him were unsuccessful.

Through interviews of relatives communicating with Specialist’s crew members, investigators learned that leading up to the accident there were times when three of the four crew members were sleeping at once, leaving the captain alone in the wheelhouse, and that the entire crew had been awake the night before the accident due
to the weather conditions.

According to crew statements and other evidence, crewmembers aboard the Specialist and the Realist had likely not received more than 4–5 hours of uninterrupted sleep in at least the 3 days leading up to the accident.

In addition to extended wakefulness or chronic sleep restriction, the crew was dealing with adverse weather conditions, strong waterway currents, and restricted visibility, which increased their overall workload and the demands on their attention, thus compounding the effects of fatigue.

Probable Cause

The NTSB determined that the probable cause of the collision and sinking of the Specialist was inadequate manning, resulting in fatigued crew members navigating three tugboats with obstructed visibility due to the size of the crane on the barge they were towing and the location of the tugboats alongside the barge.

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Source: National Transportation Safety Board

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