On March 11, the day before the accident, the owner met the pilot at the vessel, which was docked at John W Stone Oil Distribution in Gretna, Louisiana, for a brief discussion about the transit. The pilot said that the owner informed him they would pick up the load at Zito Fleet and that the barge was heading to Stolthaven to be discharged.
The owner told investigators that he discussed with the pilot the river stage, station bills, night orders, and emergency equipment, and gave the pilot a pre-voyage orientation before leaving the vessel. The pilot told investigators that as this was his first time operating the Natalie Jean, he walked around the wheelhouse after coming on board to familiarize himself with the vessel and its equipment. He stated that he did not review any emergency procedures or the station bills for abandon ship, fire, or man overboard.
He also told investigators that he was not familiar with the vessel’s steering system and that it took some time for him to get used to it. The Natalie Jean was equipped with a double-flanking rudder system and the primary steering control consisted of a short “stick” with a wooden rod taped to the end in order to extend it. The pilot told investigators that he “had to kind of work with that a bit,” but he did not elaborate further.
To enter the main shipping channel, the pilot expected to make a heading adjustment to starboard after transiting alongside the port side of the Atlantic Fairy. He said,
When I started my maneuvers to get between the ships, the barge was already cleared the ship that I was alongside, the Atlantic Fairy. Half of my boat was cleared, basically, abreast of the anchor chain, and next thing I knew I’m close to the [port] anchor chain . . . By that time, my boat and the barge was turning sideways
The pilot said he heard the Atlantic Fairy’s anchor chain getting caught on the towboat. According to video footage from a nearby factory and MRTIS data, the tow suddenly made a sharp turn to starboard.
The tow then became pressed about perpendicularly against the bulbous bow of the Atlantic Fairy and also against the bulker’s starboard anchor chain. The Natalie Jean then heeled to port, and the port tow wire parted under tension. Seconds later, the Natalie Jean capsized and the barge broke free. The Natalie Jean then quickly sank.
Two of the three crewmembers on board the towboat died in the accident, while damage estimates exceeded $500,000.
The NTSB determined that the probable cause of the capsizing and sinking of the Natalie Jean was the company’s decision to place an inadequately vetted pilot on board the vessel who did not have previous experience operating the Natalie Jean.
For more information into the incident, check the following PDF