The incident

On 20 October 2017, at 0430 local time, the crews of the articulated tug and barge (ATB) Buster Bouchard/B. No. 255 were preparing to get under way from anchorage to proceed into the Port of Corpus Christi, Texas, when an explosion and subsequent fire occurred on the bow of the barge.

Two barge crew members who were on the bow were killed in the explosion. The fire was extinguished about 1100 on the same day.

Approximately 2,000 barrels (84,000 gallons) of crude oil were released from the barge into the water or were consumed in the fire.

The barge sustained over $5 million in damage and was scrapped after the accident. There was no damage to the tugboat.

 

Probable causes

  • NTSB determines that the probable cause of the explosion aboard the barge B. No. 255 was the lack of effective maintenance and safety management of the barge by the owner which resulted in crude oil cargo leaking through a corroded bulkhead into the forepeak void space, forming vapor, and igniting.
  • Contributing to the accident were the ineffective inspections and surveys by the USCG and the class.

 

Findings

  1. The initial explosion on board the B. No. 255 originated in the forepeak of the barge.
  2. Two through-cracks and other holes in the bulkhead between the forepeak and the no. 1 port cargo tank on barge B. No. 255 were primarily a result of corrosion that existed prior to the accident and compromised the integrity of the cargo containment in the no. 1 port tank.
  3. The explosion in the forepeak of the barge was caused by the ignition of flammable vapor that formed from oil that had leaked into the space from the no. 1 port cargo tank through a corrosion-compromised bulkhead.
  4. The company's safety management system and maintenance processes failed to ensure proper maintenance of the company’s fleet of barges, including the B No. 255.
  5. The company's management failed to promote and ensure a safety culture in the company, which compromised the safety of both the vessel and the crew.
  6. USCG marine inspectors who examined barge B. No. 255 prior to the accident failed to identify unsafe conditions, which allowed the vessel to continue to operate at increased risk to the crews, the environment, and port facilities.
  7. The classification society's survey program was ineffective in ensuring the safety of barge B. No. 255 and its crew.
  8. The lack of communication between the class and the Coast Guard limited each organization’s ability to assess the overall condition of the B. No. 255 and identify hazardous conditions, including the corrosion on the forepeak/port no. 1 cargo tank bulkhead.

 

Recommendations

As a result of its investigation, the NTSB made the following safety recommendations:

  • To the owner:

Evaluate your company’s safety management system (SMS) with an independent third party to identify the areas that allowed for the poor mechanical and structural condition of the B. No. 255 and revise the SMS to address identified deficiencies.

  • To the USCG:

With the American Bureau of Shipping, establish joint policy and procedures to share information, including all results and findings from audits, surveys, examinations, inspections, and other applicable activities related to vessel safety.

  • To the class:

With the US Coast Guard, establish joint policy and procedures to share information, including all results and findings from audits, surveys, examinations, inspections, and other applicable activities related to vessel safety.

The series of failures documented during this investigation highlights the need for effective safety management systems, proper vessel maintenance, and thorough regulatory examination. If implemented, the recommendations issued as a result of this investigation will help to identify the failures that led to this accident and prevent similar casualties in the future,

...said NTSB Director of Marine Safety Brian Curtis.

 

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