Ship officers agree speed, fog factor in collision

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Associated Press

Posted on June 3, 2014 at 11:06 AM

Updated Tuesday, Jun 3 at 4:37 PM

GALVESTON, Texas (AP) — The captain of a tugboat whose barge collided with a cargo freighter in the Houston Ship Channel said Tuesday the larger vessel increased its speed in foggy conditions and she couldn't maneuver quickly enough to avoid the crash.

The pilot guiding the freighter said he never heard earlier radio traffic from the tug, did not expect it would cross in front of his vessel and did not see the other boat until it was too late to avoid a collision.

No one was hurt in the March 22 accident being examined by federal officials at a weeklong hearing, but nearly 170,000 gallons of oil spilled into the busy waterway between Texas City and Galveston and then into the Gulf of Mexico. Traces of the oil were found as far as 200 miles down the Texas coast.

"That's what really threw me: his speed's increasing," Capt. Kelli Hartman said responding to a question from John Furukawa, with the National Transportation Safety Board. "And I'm thinking, 'Oh no, this ain't looking good.'"

She said she radioed the pilot of the cargo ship Summer Wind and "gave him a chance to save face."

"His response was he was too close and it wouldn't have done no good," Hartman told Coast Guard Lt. Cmdr. Teresa Hatfield, the lead investigator.

Capt. Michael Pizzitola, whose fellow Houston Pilots Association members are brought aboard ships offshore to guide them into the port, agreed Hartman wanted to know if he could slow his ship, "but it's not going to help," he said.

"I lose maneuverability of the ship," he told the panel. "If I got down to dead slow, I lose most of my steerage when you go to a flood tide like that. That is the only reason I kept her up on full."

Hartman, at the helm of the Houston-based Kirby Inland Marine tugboat Miss Susan, said she would have had time to cross the channel pushing two barges but was surprised to see on electronic tracking devices that the freighter had increased its speed from 10 knots, or about 11½ mph, to 12 or 13 knots. The situation was exacerbated by fog, the flood tide current and the presence of two other vessels in the waterway.

"I did everything I could to get out of his way," said Hartman, who's spent more than three decades on boats.

Pizzitola, with more than 40 years of experience, insisted his speed was necessary to maintain steering on a day when the currents were stronger than usual, but acknowledged a portable electronic navigation device was malfunctioning, that he wasn't monitoring all usual radio channels where transmissions about Hartman's tug and barges were broadcast and was immersed in using the radar on his ship to guide it into the channel.

When Hartman called him, the tug was less than eight-tenths of a mile ahead. Then he emerged from a fog bank, a "ghost fog," he called it.

"I hollered, 'Hard to starboard, full astern,'" he said. His ship would have required at least a mile to stop, Pizzitola said.

His next command: "Stop engines," he said. "The collision happened."

The accident also snarled traffic for five days along the ship channel, which serves the nation's largest petrochemical complex.

The panel led by Hatfield is gathering information to determine a cause for the collision and make recommendations to keep it from happening again.

The tug and its two barges were leaving Texas City and heading for the Intracoastal Waterway. The Summer Wind was heading inbound through the Houston Ship Channel. The collision happened when the barges made a left turn to enter the Intracoastal Waterway and were crossing the ship channel.

Kirby has said in court filings the Summer Wind was speeding and being operated in a reckless manner, while Liberia-based Sea Galaxy, owners of the Summer Wind, has said the collision wasn't its fault.

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