Inland Waterways – Tug and Barge Accidents – Arkansas River Accidents

The Arkansas River flows through four states on its way across the Great Plains of America. It is a major tributary of the Mississippi River, and at 1,469 miles it is the sixth longest river in the United States.

The headwaters are located in the Arkansas River Valley in Colorado. The river crosses Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Arkansas before flowing into the Mississippi River. The river passes several major cities as it makes its way across the plains. These include Pueblo in Colorado, Wichita in Kansas, Tulsa and Muskogee in Oklahoma and Fort Smith, Little Rock and Pine Bluff in Arkansas.

This river is crossed by many highway and railroad bridges along its route. Each of these poses a hazard to tugs and barges, which they must navigate while transporting goods to various ports and docks.

Notable Tug and Barge Accidents

There have been a number of accidents reported over the years along the Arkansas River:

  • June 2015. A tug crashed into a gas pipeline which ruptured, causing a temporary closure of a section of the river to marine traffic. There were no reports of injuries.
  • October 2013. A bridge carrying the Interstate 30 highway was struck by a tug pushing eight barges. The bridge was closed for inspection and reopened after no damage was found. There were no reported injuries.
  • August 2013. Several barges became dislodged from their tug and struck sections of two bridges over the river. The bridges were closed to traffic for damage assessment before being reopened. No injuries were reported.
  • May 2002. A tug pushing two empty barges veered off course and struck the Interstate 40 bridge near Webbers Falls, Oklahoma. The impact of the crash caused the collapse of a large section of the bridge. Eight cars and three semi-trailer trucks plunged off the bridge and into the water. The accident was caused when the tugboat captain suddenly lost consciousness.

Tugboat Safety Regulations

The U.S. Coast Guard published new safety regulations for uninspected towing vessels in July 1996. These apply to any tug involved in commercial towing that is over 39.4 feet in length. Exemptions may be extended by the Captain of the Port to smaller tugs employed to assist with towing.

Tugs operating on the should be equipped with the following:

  • Marine radar
  • Magnetic compass
  • Echo sounding equipment
  • VHF-FM radio
  • GPS or similar electronic position fixing system
  • Current charts of the river
  • A searchlight

Regulations require a tug’s owner, master or operator to ensure that facing wires, push gear and spring lines on all vessels are the appropriate length for the tow. They must frequently be inspected and must be appropriate for the tug’s horsepower.

Safety regulations impose strict rules for the maintenance and testing of equipment onboard. If a tug is scheduled to undergo a voyage lasting more than 24 hours, thorough testing must be carried out on navigation equipment, steering systems, communications equipment and lights used for navigation and towing. A visual inspection of propulsion systems and terminal gear must also be conducted.

The regulations require operators to keep a log of all maintenance and repairs to equipment related to a tug’s navigational safety. The contents of this log must be reported to the Captain of the Port and must be available for inspection by an officer of the U.S. Coast Guard at all times.

Tug and Barge Crew Statutory Protections

Work on board a tug or barge is among the most dangerous in the world. There are many dangers that make the crew vulnerable to injury or death. When tow lines and cables under tension snap, they can become lethal missiles. Winches can also pose a significant danger to tug crew. Barge workers are not immune to injury, especially when working with hazardous cargo. Heavy freight may shift in transit and result in serious crush injuries.

Tug and barge crew receive protection under the Jones Act. When injured, they can claim compensation under this statute. If an accident results in death, the victim’s immediate dependent family may claim compensation.

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