NTSB: Captain’s complacency to blame for barges hitting Natchez bridges

Published 4:17 pm Wednesday, April 3, 2024

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NATCHEZ – After more than 200 trips on the same route, a veteran captain’s complacency led to a barge collision with the Mississippi River bridges in Natchez in April 2023, according to a report by the National Transportation Safety Board.

The NTSB released the report of its investigation on Tuesday, citing the captain’s testimony that he “wasn’t paying attention” when the Susan K and its barges collided with the Natchez-Vidalia bridges on April 23, 2023.

According to the NTSB report, the captain had the watch as the towboat approached Natchez, where the two bridges offer 850-foot clear spans for barge traffic. Around 10:30 p.m., the captain was maneuvering to take the towboat through the recommended channel but when he looked up to check on the navigation, he discovered the boat was nearly 400 feet off track to the east.

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He told investigators that he “wasn’t paying attention to what I was doing … and by the time I was looking for my marks [visual references] to make the bridge, I realized that I was way off my marks.”

Rather than steer back into the correct track, the captain opted to maneuver to the port, aiming for the next span to the east. Despite increasing RPM, he was unable to complete the turn, the report states. Three barges in the middle of the starboard side of the tow collided with the bridge and the two broke apart.

“There was nothing unusual about the transit or approach that would have heightened the captain’s awareness or vigilance, such as adverse weather or river conditions, vessel traffic, or mechanical issues with the vessel,” according to the NTSB.

The cause, as the captain testified, was simply complacency.

“You get complacent sometimes when you do something so many times and you’re sloppy,” the captain testified in the report. He has 45 years of towboat experience and had completed 200 transits of the Natchez-Vidalia bridges with no incidents. He also had passed a post-accident drug test, had no cellphone distractions and had ample rest prior to the incident.

“Repetition and familiarity reduce the required level of cognitive effort required to execute such tasks — even complex, skill-based tasks — increasing the susceptibility to attention lapses or distraction,” the NTSB said in its report. “Developing strategies that help maintain focus is a good practice. These strategies may include continuous scanning of instruments and surroundings outside the wheelhouse, strict adherence to procedures, eliminating distractions, changing position or moving.”

As for damage from the incident, deck plating and bulkheads on the second and third barges in the starboard string were dented or deformed when the barges made contact with the bridge pier. The hull of the fourth barge was breached; after drifting downriver about 6 miles, the barge partially sank. The barge was later salvaged.

Ken Morris, MDOT engineer, said at the time of the incident that the damage to the bridge was minor and “nothing to worry about.” “It was hit Sunday and they went over Monday and checked it,” he said. There was just minor damage where it had scuffed up one of the piers.”

Click here to read a copy of the full NTSB report.