Inland Waterways – Tug and Barge Accidents – Mobile River Accidents

The Mobile River is a principal waterway in Alabama. The confluence of the Tombigbee and Alabama rivers, located approximately 45 miles northeast of Mobile City, form the River. There are a number of bridges carrying U.S. routes and interstate highways that cross the river at various points over its length.

The river flows southwards into Mobile Bay and out into the Gulf of Mexico. Its drainage basin is one of the largest in the United States and historically provided the main access into the Alabama interior. The city of Mobile at the head of the bay is the main center for commercial river traffic, including tugs and barges transporting cargo up and down the river.

Mobile River Tug and Barge Accidents

Alabama has recorded several accidents on this river:

  • October 2014. A tug and a dredging vessel sank in the Mobile Ship Channel. The accident occurred north of Gaillard Island. Another tugboat rescued the crews of both vessels, and there were no reported injuries.
  • April 2013. Workers were cleaning out the tanks of two barges docked in Mobile, Alabama when a tug motored into dock alongside them. The barges had been carrying flammable liquids, and vapors from the open tanks entered the engine room of the tug and ignited. The fire spread to the two barges. Three people received serious burn injuries, and all three vessels were extensively damaged.
  • July 2010. A barge and crane sank near Pinto Island, just south of the bridge carrying the Interstate 10. There were no reports of injuries.
  • September 1993. In the worst accident in Amtrak’s history, a train carrying 210 passengers derailed on a bridge over the river and plunged into the water. The crash was caused by an inadequately trained tugboat pilot how had lost his way in the fog while pushing six barges carrying steel, coal, cement and iron pellets. One of the barges rammed and damaged the bridge shortly before the Amtrak train ran over it. The train hit a girder dislodged in the barge crash which caused the bridge to collapse. Three locomotives and four cars landed in the water, killing 47 people and injuring 103 passengers.

U.S. Coast Guard Safety Regulations

Safety provisions required under law for tugs, as well as regulations imposed by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), are enforced by the U.S. Coast Guard. Under the latest regulations, tugs operating on the Mobile River must be fitted with marine radar, a magnetic compass and current charts of the river for navigational purposes. They must also be equipped with a searchlight, VHF-FM radio, and an echo depth sounding device.

Facing wires, push gear and spring lines on tugs are required to be inspected at regular intervals. They must be sized appropriately for the tugboat’s horsepower and the length of the tow.

The regulations require tug operators to maintain and test the following equipment before embarking on a voyage of more than 24 hours:

  • Navigation system and equipment
  • Propulsion system
  • Steering mechanism
  • All communications equipment
  • Lighting to assist towing and navigation
  • Terminal gear

Logs must be kept for all maintenance and repair work done on the vessel. These must be available for inspection by the U.S. Coast Guard at all times.

Worker’s Compensation

Crew on board tugs and barges are particularly vulnerable to injury in the course of their work. They are required to work in all kinds of weather and have to contend with dangerous equipment including winches, tow lines, and cables.

If a tow line comes loose while a vessel is under tow, it can cause serious injury or death. Barge workers also face dangers on board from hazardous cargo. They run the risk of serious injury if heavy cargo shifts in transit.

Injured workers are protected under the Jones Act. They may claim compensation for their injuries. In the event of death, the statute entitles any dependent family member to claim compensation.

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