Inland Waterways – Tug and Barge Accidents – Tennessee River Accidents

The Tennessee River is 650 miles long and drops 513 feet along its length. It begins near Knoxville, Tenn., where the Holston and French Broad rivers meet and enters the Ohio River at Paducah, Ky. Spanning seven states, its drainage basin covers about 41,000 square miles. Engineering projects have improved navigation over the years by constructing nine dams, which created a passable chain of lakes. Flood control and other improvements have also increased river traffic.

Notable Tennessee River Tug/Barge Accidents

January 2012 – A cargo boat, carrying parts of space rockets for NASA, crashed into a traffic bridge in western Kentucky. Steel and asphalt from the bridge covered the bow of the Delta Mariner, stalling it in its tracks. The vessel was too tall to pass, but there were no injuries onboard or the bridge. The vessel and its cargo did not sustain major damage.

June 2010 – Three fishermen were killed when a barge tow collided with their vessel near Chattanooga, Tenn. The accident occurred on Chickamauga Lake and later sparked a lawsuit in which both sides blamed the other for the incident. A report by the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency detailed contributing factors including drug and alcohol use by the fishermen, and the lack of a proper lookout by the barge company, which was involved in another fatality that same year. The tow boat’s pilot was indicted on two counts of criminally negligent homicide and other charges, including recklessness and failing to render assistance. In addition, the M/V Bearcat (the same tow) hit a passenger boat in June 2009; one of that vessel’s occupants was killed.

July 2008 – A recreational vessel collided with two 300-foot barges on Lake Wilson, killing four boaters as the barges ran over the aluminum cruiser. Operated by Maryland Marine, the barges and towboat had navigation lights, and the captain of the vessel noticed the boat approaching on radar. It only took seconds from when a searchlight was directed at the approaching boat to when it rolled underneath, according to the captain. The vessels were shipping chemicals as they routinely did up the Tennessee River to Decatur, Ala., from the Gulf Coast.

2006 – The same towboat was involved in an accident which involved an entanglement in the upstream gate of the Wilson Lock and Dam. A different captain and crew were on board.

July 2008 – A towboat deck hand fell off a barge in Florence, Ala., as it was being maneuvered through a lock at Wilson Dam. Suffering blunt force trauma to the head, he died from the injury. The deck hand had been hired just 11 days before. Video cameras, used to assist the lock operator in navigation, captured the incident, which appeared to be accidental. At the time, the towing vessel was moving 15 barges up the river, arranged in five long and three wide configurations to accommodate the length of the lock. The worker was on the aft starboard barge, according to the report, when he fell.

The report also said the victim had a life jacket on and conditions were good. Crewmembers tried to resuscitate him, until emergency medical technicians arrived, but were unsuccessful.

August 2006 – A barge collided with a dam near Florence, Ala., becoming entangled with the lift gate. River traffic was held up for nearly two weeks. The report didn’t note any injuries, but it did cover the conditions of the affected lock and others. Improper materials, neglect, and inaction had been causing infrastructure to deteriorate, with the potential for closures to cut-off barge traffic north of the Chattanooga River.

December 1993 – Two barge tows collided with a rail bridge in Knoxville. Nobody was hurt in the incident, but the Coast Guard reportedly did not notify the correct railroad operator about the accident. The tracks were over 9 inches out of alignment when the vessels hit the bridge’s support pier. A similar incident the previous September led to an Amtrak crash near Mobile, Ala., which killed 47 people.

River vessel accidents can involve crew and passengers of recreational boats. They also result in damage to vital transportation infrastructure. The Tennessee River has a history of such accidents. Often blame can be placed on those at fault, with neglect at the top of the list. With some accidents, however, it is hard to pinpoint a cause.

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