Speed, Comms Implicated in Houston Channel Collision

Published Jun 9, 2015 11:09 PM by The Maritime Executive

The U.S. National Transportation Safety Board has released its findings into the collision between a bulk carrier and a barge in the Houston Channel last year citing a lack of communication between the vessel’s and inappropriate vessel speeds as contributing factors in the accident.

On March 22, 2014, about 1235 central daylight time, the 607-foot-long bulk carrier Summer Wind with a Houston pilot on board collided with the 670-foot-long Miss Susan tow (a 70-foot-long towing vessel and two 300-foot-long tank barges loaded with fuel oil) in the Houston Ship Channel, Lower Galveston Bay, Texas. 

The visibility was restricted at the time due to fog. The bulk carrier was inbound to Houston, traveling in a north direction. The tow was bound for Port Bolivar on the east side of the Houston Ship Channel, traveling in an east direction.

The collision breached the hull of the forward tank barge in the Miss Susan tow, and about 168,000 gallons of fuel oil spilled into the waterway. Two crewmembers on board the Miss Susan sustained minor injuries related to inhalation of fuel vapor. The total estimated damage was nearly $1,378,000 (excluding oil response and recovery efforts).

The National Transportation Safety Board determined that the probable cause of the collision was the Miss Susan captain’s attempt to cross the Houston Ship Channel ahead of the Summer Wind, thereby impeding the passage of the bulk carrier, which could transit only within the confines of the channel. 

Contributing to the accident was the failure of the Houston pilot and the Summer Wind master to set a safe speed given the restricted visibility and nearby towing vessel traffic, and the failure of the Miss Susan captain and the Houston pilot to establish early radio communication with one another. 

Also contributing to the accident was the failure of Vessel Traffic Service Houston/Galveston to interact with the two vessels during the developing risk of collision, and the lack of a Coast Guard vessel separation policy for the Bolivar Roads Precautionary Area.

The report identifies the following safety issues: 

•    Lack of vessel separation in Houston Ship Channel precautionary areas with intersecting waterways: The NTSB has previously noted that insufficient distance between vessels when they turn, pass, and overtake one another near intersections can create unsafe situations. This accident once again highlights the need for separation between vessels in such areas of the Houston Ship Channel.
•    Inadequate oversight and training related to the safety and health of uninspected towing vessel crews responding to hazardous materials releases: In assessing why two Miss Susan crewmembers suffered inhalation injuries when responding to the oil spill, the NTSB found that both federal oversight and company training of personnel exposed to hazardous materials were insufficient.

The report is available here.