The towboat’s pilot is likely impaired by fatigue or drug use during the bridge crossing, NTSB says

The National Transportation Safety Board says a towboat pilot was likely impaired by fatigue or drug use when his tow hit and damaged a bridge on Louisiana’s Intracoastal Waterway in 2021.

The tugboat Miss Mollye D was pushing six funnel ships on the Intracoastal Waterway to New Orleans in the early hours of December 23, 2021? when the pilot lost control of the towing.

While navigating the channel, the 676-foot towline began swinging to port. When the pilot noticed that the tow was not positioned well, he engaged reverse gear, but the tow then struck the bridge running parallel to the waterway. It appears the pilot never reported the incident to authorities

The pilot told investigators he did not see the bridge at first, nor did he know the tow hit the bridge.

The incident led to the rupture of water, power and gas lines along the bridge, raising alerts from utility companies. Workers sent to investigate found the bridge damaged and reported it to the US Coast Guard.

The NTSB said video from a forward-looking camera on the Miss Mollye D detected a vehicle crossing the bridge with lights visible prior to contact. In addition, the sudden loss of speed and the visual display of the righting barges would have been clear indicators of bridging.

According to NTSB investigators, based on the evidence, it is apparent that the pilot knew the tow hit the bridge, but he did not report the strike to the deputy captain or the US Coast Guard.

Federal regulations require that the operator of a vessel involved in an accidental bridging immediately notify the nearest US Coast Guard office.

The bridge, which does not cross a navigable waterway, was closed to traffic after the impact. The south lane of the bridge will remain closed until repairs.

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 Towing using the Route 182 bridge was a loss of tug control by the pilot at the helm of the tugboat, likely due to interference from factors such as fatigue or drug use.

According to the NTSB, on a rotation of 6 hours on watch and 6 hours off watch, the pilot and deputy captain were on watch, which research has shown results in shorter sleep durations, more dozing off during the watch, and more instances of excessive sleepiness compared to a 4-hour watch On, 8-hour off rotation. The incident also occurred between 02:00 and 06:00, which is known to be a daily low.

A urinalysis submitted by the pilot on the afternoon of the incident returned a negative result for all drugs examined. However, hair sample tests conducted five weeks later indicated that the pilot had used buprenorphine and fentanyl sometime in the 1 to 2 months prior to the test. The NTSB said that while use of either drug could have caused the pilot to become impaired, the exact timing of the drug use could not be determined.

“This accident underscores the importance of reporting bridge strikes and other casualties as soon as they occur,” the report said. “Traffic across the bridge was not halted until utility workers found the damage hours after the accident.” In the time between the impact and the time the damage was noted, the bridge may have failed or severed gas and power lines may have ignited a fire .

Marine survey report 23-04 is available on the NTSB website.

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