Inland Waterways – Tug and Barge – River Accidents – Mississippi River Accidents

Barge accidents can be especially troublesome on the Mississippi River, which stretches over 2,300 miles from north to south. These incidents can require cleanup and closure of the waterway to marine traffic and shipping. For example, a January 2013 incident in which an oil barge hit a railroad bridge near Vicksburg required cleanup crews to address an oil leak. The vessel was carrying 80,000 gallons of oil. As a result, a 16-mile stretch of river was closed leaving at least 47 other barges and vessels idling, according to USA Today.

When storm waters swell the river and cause flooding, shipping traffic is disrupted. In January 2016, Reuters reported that traffic was halted by the U.S. Coast Guard (USCG) after an accident involving the tow boat Lucia and barges, six of which broke free and had to be recovered. The boat struck the barges, which were sitting in a fleeting area in New Orleans, Louisiana. It was reportedly the fifth time that week a barge accident occurred.

Also, that week, a barge tow with ethanol triggered a 292,000-gallon spill after a collision with a Helena, Arkansas, highway bridge. There were three other incidents in which vessels struck the bridge that week; in two, barges had sunk.

Tug Boats: The River Accident Potential

In July 2017, U.S. News reported the sinking of a tow boat near Cairo, Illinois, in which nine crew members were rescued. Some of the vessel’s 79,000 gallons of diesel fuel leaked into the water but was later contained. Two tug boats collided in December 2015 on the Lower Mississippi river near Memphis, Tennessee, an incident in which the William Straight sank. The crash also involved the Margaret Ann. Containment and sorbent booms were placed around the vessels to prevent pollutants from spreading.

A WorkBoat report revealed that, in 2015, six towing industry workers were killed on the job. Three of them fell overboard. It also cited the most recent peak in fatalities, which was 29 in 1997, which declined to an annual rate of 18 or 19, and then subsequently fell through the single digits. Half of the deaths in the industry are from falls overboard, and the U.S. Coast Guard has approximated that these represent 50 percent of fatalities aboard towing vessels.

The worst maritime disaster in the nation’s history occurred on the Mississippi River on April 27, 1865. On the day after President Abraham Lincoln’s assassin John Wilkes Booth was killed, the steamboat Sultana exploded and sank north of Memphis. About 1,700 people were killed on the vessel, which was carrying 2,300 people, well beyond its design capacity.

Serious river boat accidents occur even in modern times. In 1996, a freighter lost power and crashed into the Riverwalk Mall in New Orleans, a metal and glass structure over the water. A casino ship was docked next to the mall but was missed by the freighter as the pilot tried to navigate it between the floating casino (coming within 70 feet) and a cruise vessel. There were 140 injuries and six deaths.

However, the situation was much different in St. Louis in April 1998, when three barges collided with a riverboat casino, which then went adrift for about 500 feet. The Admiral riverboat and president casino were retrieved by a towboat. The vessel had 2,500 people aboard, and 31 were injured. Four barges that broke loose were secured by towboats, but another sank.

A 2008 incident involving a tugboat that struck a tanker in New Orleans caused hundreds of thousands of gallons of oil to spill. Coast Guard officials found that the operator was not properly licensed, and no other crew members were licensed to drive the vessel. Per the law, captains aboard the tug boat and tanker were tested for substance use, while the river remained closed amid efforts to investigate the accident and clean up the spill.

Laws Regarding Inland Waterway Safety

A Code of Federal Regulations overseen by the USGC addresses safe speeds on all navigable waters, which depends on the prevailing conditions, determining the risk of collisions, and taking action to avoid them. It oversees activities in coastal waters, ports, and inland waterways, as well as in international waters. All vessels must have visible lights and sound signals for when visibility is restricted, or when a ship is in distress. Federal requirements span maneuvering and warning signals; the number of blasts heard tells vessel operators where another ship intends to pass. Also, any number of vessels towed alongside or in a group must usually be lit as one vessel.

The USCG also oversees reporting requirements. Anyone operating a vessel negligently, or who interferes with its safe operation, can face a civil penalty. It is a class A misdemeanor to operate a vessel such that human life, limbs, or property are endangered, or if an operator is under the influence of drugs or alcohol.

Regarding marine casualty assistance and information, one in charge of the vessel must assist an individual, which includes saving them if possible without imposing danger to the ship or those on board. All pertinent name and address details, and vessel identifications must be provided to the person in charge. The ship master’s name must be provided to any person injured on the vessel, or to owners whose property is damaged. Federal law also requires alcohol testing following any serious marine casualty, and within two hours of an incident or as soon as possible.

The Jones Act and Inland Waterways

Statutes of the Merchant Marine Act of 1920 apply to vessels transporting goods over the ocean and along the Great Lakes or the Mississippi River. The act, therefore, impacts trade in every state, but the benefits aren’t just economic. Also, its workers’ compensation provisions for maritime employees applies to those who work on rivers and inland lakes, including captains and crew members of barges, tugs, river boat cruises, casinos and other vessels along any stretch of the Mississippi River, from its northern extents to the delta waters near the Gulf of Mexico.

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