The National Transportation Safety Board has determined that the December 14, 1996, accident in which the freighter BRIGHT FIELD struck the Poydras Street wharf in New Orleans occurred because the BRIGHT FIELD's owners had failed to properly oversee maintenance of the vessel's propulsion plant. The Safety Board also faulted the U.S. Coast Guard, the Board of Commissioners of the Port of New Orleans, and International RiverCenter and other stakeholders for failing to effectively address the risk of placing commercial activities and moored vessels in areas vulnerable to vessel strikes.
In the accident, the BRIGHT FIELD, a 735-foot-long Liberian bulk carrier owned by Clearsky Shipping Company, struck portions of the Riverwalk Marketplace shopping mall, the New Orleans Hilton Riverside Hotel, and a condominium parking garage. Sixty-two persons were injured in the accident, four of them seriously. Property damage to the ship and to shoreside structures was estimated at $20 million.
The BRIGHT FIELD was downbound in the Mississippi River at the time of the accident. The Safety Board investigation determined that, as the ship transited under the Crescent City Connection Bridges, the vessel's pilot began maneuvering the ship toward the left descending bank of the river to facilitate an upcoming turn around a sharp bend in the river at Algiers Point. As the pilot made the maneuver, a lubricating oil pump for the vessel's main engine lost pressure. A backup pump did not start automatically, and control devices designed to protect the engine from damage due to low oil pressure shut the engine down. The engine was restarted after the backup oil pump was started manually, but because of the time required to restore pressure and restart the engine (about 2 minutes), the ship could not avoid striking the wharf.
The Safety Board determined that the BRIGHT FIELD had a documented record of engineering problems and that if the vessel's owners had kept the ship's engineering plant in good repair, the vessel may not have unexpectedly lost power on the day of the accident. The investigation also determined that, at several points during the emergency, the pilot, the master, and the crew did not exchange information that, under other circumstances, could have prevented, or at least mitigated the effects of an accident. The Safety Board stopped short, however, of stating that any action the BRIGHT FIELD crew could have taken would have prevented the accident.
Two moored ships, the gaming vessel QUEEN OF NEW ORLEANS and the excursion vessel CREOLE QUEEN, narrowly escaped being struck by the BRIGHT FIELD. Injuries were reported aboard both vessels, however, as passengers attempted to exit the ships as the BRIGHT FIELD approached. The Safety Board found that the evacuation of the QUEEN OF NEW ORLEANS was hampered, and passenger risk increased, because only one gangway was available to exit the vessel. The Safety Board concluded that non-operating crewmembers of the QUEEN OF NEW ORLEANS and the CREOLE QUEEN had not recieved training covering the full range of emergency scenarios and were unprepared to properly carry out their responsibilities in this accident.
The Safety Board stated its concern that, despite the historical record of marine incidents and accidents in that section of the Mississippi River, the Board of Commissioners of the Port of New Orleans permitted the placement of commercial facilities within about 20 feet of an unprotected wharf. The Safety Board concluded that the stakeholders within the Port of New Orleans, including Federal, State, and local agencies; private and commercial entities; shipowners, and pilot associations had not determined the overall level of risk associated with the full range of activities within the port area and had not provided adequate protection for persons and properties in that area.
More than 6,000 oceangoing ships and 120,000 barge and tows travel through the Port of New Orleans each year, making it one of the busiest ports in the nation. The Safety Board said that among the factors that must be considered in a comprehensive risk assessment are risks associated with relatively high-speed navigation of the river, high river stage and rapid river current, railroad and highway bridges spanning the waterway, and the carriage of cargoes such as bulk oil or other hazardous materials or chemicals that can cause pollution, fire, or explosion.
In its final report on this accident, the Safety Board issued safety recommendations to 10 organizations.
The Safety Board recommended that the Clearsky Shipping Company correct all engineering conditions not in conformance with the manufacturer's specifications; institute an engineering testing, maintenance, repair, and company oversight program; and provide its bridge and engineroom watchstanding officers and crewmembers with initial and recurrent bridge resource management training.
The U.S. Coast Guard and the Board of Commissioners of the Port of New Orleans were urged to reassess the risk of locating passenger vessels along the left descending bank of the Mississippi River and determine whether to remove the vessels to a less vulnerable location or put in place procedural, operational, or physical barriers that will protect these vessels from ramming by riverborne traffic.
The Safety Board recommended that, as part of the permit-approval process for new commercial and residential development along the wharves within its jurisdiction, the Board of Commissioners of the Port of New Orleans require that any new construction of occupied space be sited behind a buffer zone sufficient to protect persons and property by safely absorbing the impact should a vessel strike the wharf.
New Orleans Paddlewheels, Inc., owner of the QUEEN OF NEW ORLEANS and the CREOLE QUEEN, was asked to maintain written records verifying non-operating crewmembers proficiency levels and skill retention of formal emergency training and drills in the proper handling of emergencies, and to review the existing methods of providing safety information to boarding passengers.
The Safety Board also recommended that all stakeholders within the Port of New Orleans participate in a comprehensive risk assessment for activities within the port area and, in the short-term, implement risk-management and risk-mitigation initiatives that will ensure the safety of people and property within the Port of New Orleans.
The Safety Board's complete report may be purchased from the National Technical Information Service, 5285 Port Royal Road, Springfield, Virginia 22161. The telephone number is (703) 487-4650. The report should be identified as PB98-916401.