LOUISVILLE, Kentucky — The pilot and crew members aboard a cargo ship had reservations about the boat's course shortly before it struck a bridge over the Tennessee River, but no one stepped up to check written or electronic charts against what they were seeing, the National Transportation Safety Board concluded Tuesday.
Federal investigators said the crew of the Delta Mariner also ignored a broadcast warning about navigation lights being out on the Eggner's Ferry Bridge on Jan. 26, 2012, and failed to heed a warning from a docked towing ship as it neared the span.
Investigators also concluded that white warning lights on the bridge had been out for several years and other lights had shorted out in the days before the wreck. Investigators chided Kentucky officials for failing to tackle light maintenance on the bridge to solve the problem.
NTSB lead investigator Liam LaRue said a contract pilot maneuvered the ship toward the one lighted span without consulting either the written charts or electronic equipment on board. Those charts and equipment could have guided them to either stop the ship or redirect to a taller section of the bridge.
"The problem is they didn't even look at the chart in this case," LaRue said. "No one said, 'This is a multi-span bridge, but I'm only seeing one lit span.'"
The missed and ignored warnings were part of a series of errors that led to the cargo ship striking the bridge and tearing down a 322-foot section of the span that carries traffic from near Aurora, Kentucky, to Land Between The Lakes National Recreation Area in western Kentucky. The NTSB made its findings public during a hearing on the wreck Tuesday afternoon.
David Rayburn, a bridge lighting specialist for the NTSB, said a string of white navigation lights had been out on the bridge for more than a year before the wreck. Other navigation lights alerting boaters to the high point on the bridge to pass under shorted out days before the wreck, Rayburn said.
The lowest point of the bridge had two red lights and a green light working, but was too low for the Delta Mariner to pass under, Rayburn said. The rest of the bridge was unlit. The pilot steered toward the lit span, Rayburn said.
"Bridge lighting can be critical to the ability of mariners to safely navigate inland waterways," Rayburn said.
The issues with the crew started when no one heeded two radioed warnings from the U.S. Coast Guard about navigation lights on the bridge being out, LaRue said.
While the ship's owner and operator, Seattle-based Foss Maritime, had extra crew on board, including two Mississippi River pilots working under contract, to try and ensure safety, few people knew their responsibilities and no one felt they had the authority to tell the contract pilot to stop or turn around the ship, investigator Larry Bowling said.
As the Delta Mariner approached the Eggner's Ferry Bridge, the Addi Bell, a ship docked at the side of the river, tried to radio the cargo ship, but no one responded, LaRue said.
"They got the sense the vessel coming down the river wasn't lined up right," LaRue said.
NTSB Chairman Deborah Hersman said the crew expressed misgivings about the ship's course, but no one checked either written charts or electronic navigation equipment.
"They weren't sure they were going to hit it until they hit it," LaRue said.
Scott Merritt, Foss Maritime senior vice president for operations, said in a statement Tuesday night that the company welcomes the investigation results and recommendations.
"We are committed to a Zero Incident culture and recognize that learning from incidents like this one is a critical part of achieving our goals," Merritt said.
The bridge collapse stopped traffic over the waterway for about four months before repairs were complete. NTSB personnel said Kentucky transportation officials have since made changes to how lights on the bridge are maintained. Investigators recommended that Foss Maritime develop and implement a better passage plan for Delta Mariner's voyage and clearly define responsibilities while crew is on the bridge of the vessel.
Kentucky Transportation Cabinet spokesman Chuck Wolfe said a crew from the cabinet was in the process of repairing the lights at the time of the wreck.
"And in keeping with Coast Guard protocol for just such occasions, cabinet personnel notified the Coast Guard, which in turn issued multiple broadcast warnings to mariners — including the crew of the Delta Mariner — that some lights on the Eggners Ferry Bridge were not operating," Wolfe said in a statement.
Kentucky officials are seeking $7.1 million in damages from Foss Maritime. BellSouth Telecommunications filed a $59,000 damages claim, and the owners of a nearby restaurant filed a $33,000 claim for lost income while the bridge was being repaired for four months. Foss Maritime has asked a federal judge to rule it was not responsible for causing the collapse because some of the bridge's lights were not working.
Under maritime law, Foss Maritime doesn't have to sue another party. Instead, it can ask a judge to rule on the extent of liability and to halt all other lawsuits and legal proceedings while that determination is made.
The deadline for claims passed in December. As a formality, the company moved in January to stop any further claims from being filed.
The Delta Mariner was carrying an Atlas rocket booster and other components for the U.S. Air Force's AEHF-2 mission from Decatur, Alabama, to Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, a trip that normally takes about 10 days. The rocket parts were not damaged, and there was no change in the scheduled launch date, the company has said.
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