Late last year, a mariner who worked on a Mississippi River towboat lost his life when the boat capsized and sank during a spell of unusually high water and fast current near St. Louis. The Coast Guard was unable to recover the worker’s body for a month.
The towboat was getting ready to move barges to a different area of the fleeting zone. However, the boat lost control with a particularly bad current and became trapped against another barge. With nowhere to go, the current swept over as water began spilling onto the deck. The boat quickly began to sink. Two of the mariners escaped the capsizing boat. One worker, however, did not make it off the boat. The worker’s body was still on board and only recovered when the towboat was pulled from the water.
Was This Towboat Accident Caused By Operator Error?
According to reports, the towboat left a mooring and the towboat operator proceeded onto a strong, downstream current. The operator then proceeded to implement a sharp turn. However, the current caught the towboat and the operator did not have the time to correct. That’s when the stern whipped around and the boat became trapped.
The Coast Guard investigated to determine whether the operator intentionally did a “downstreaming” maneuver. Downstreaming is when a tugboat moves downstream on the current deliberately in an attempt to land on another object, such as a dock or another tow. Although downstreaming is relatively common as it helps remove barges from docks or fleeting spaces, if a towboat hits the current at the wrong angle when the tug meets the barge, it can trap the boat.
Authorities ultimately ruled the incident was caused by operator error and high waters.
Towboat Operators Have a Responsibility to Their Crew to Proceed Cautiously
While operators may feel pressure from their companies of employment to complete deadlines, putting other crewmembers at risk or costing them their lives is unacceptable. While downstreaming is a somewhat common practice, it should only be done in extreme cases. If you have experienced an injury or the loss of a loved one due to operator error, which is not limited to towboats, contact an experienced maritime attorney to assess the situation and explain your rights.