Tug captain says speeding ship in fog led to crash

Associated Press

GALVESTON, Texas (AP) — The captain of a tugboat whose barges collided with a cargo freighter in the Houston Ship Channel said Tuesday the larger vessel increased its speed in foggy conditions and she couldn't maneuver quickly to avoid the crash.

No one was hurt in the March 22 accident being examined by federal officials at a weeklong hearing, but nearly 170,000 gallons of oil spilled into the busy waterway between Texas City and Galveston and then into the Gulf of Mexico. Traces of the oil were found as far as 200 miles down the Texas coast.

"That's what really threw me: his speed's increasing," Capt. Kelli Hartman said responding to a question from John Furukawa, with the National Transportation Safety Board. "And I'm thinking, 'Oh no, this ain't looking good.'"

She said she radioed the pilot of the cargo ship Summer Wind and "gave him a chance to save face."

"His response was he was too close and it wouldn't have done no good," Hartman told Coast Guard Lt. Cmdr. Teresa Hatfield, the lead investigator.

Hartman, at the helm of the Houston-based Kirby Inland Marine tugboat Miss Susan, said she had calculated that at 6 mph she had enough time to cross the channel pushing two barges but was surprised to see on electronic tracking devices that the freighter had increased its speed from 10 knots, or about 11½ mph, to 12 or 13 knots. The situation was exacerbated by fog, a flood tide current and the presence of two other vessels in the waterway that prevented her from taking evasive action in another direction, she said.

"I did everything I could to get out of his way," said Hartman, who's spent more than three decades on boats.

Hartman also told an attorney for Sea Galaxy, the Liberia-based owners of the Summer Wind, that without the speed increase, her plan would have allowed the tug and its barges, covering more than two football fields in length, to clear the larger ship by a half-mile.

The pilot of the cargo ship was to testify before the panel later Tuesday.

The accident also snarled traffic for five days along the ship channel, which serves the nation's largest petrochemical complex.

The panel led by Hatfield is gathering information to determine a cause for the collision and make recommendations to keep it from happening again.

The tug and its two barges were leaving Texas City and heading for the Intracoastal Waterway. The Summer Wind was heading inbound through the Houston Ship Channel. The collision happened when the barges made a left turn to enter the Intracoastal Waterway and were crossing the ship channel.

Kirby has said in court filings the Summer Wind was speeding and being operated in a reckless manner, while Sea Galaxy has said the collision wasn't its fault.

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