Foss Maritime company officials and the second mate of the Delta Mariner cargo ship provided testimony Wednesday in the third day of the U. S. Coast Guard and National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) public hearings in the Eggners Ferry Bridge incident investigation.
The Coast Guard and NTSB are determining which entities or individuals may be at fault for the Jan. 26 night-time crash that knocked out a 322-ft. section of the bridge near Aurora. The hearings are not a trial, but are part of a formal inquiry that could lead to sanctions if anyone is found to be in violation of proper procedure and conduct.
Investigators asked Bob Pepper, Delta Mariner general manager, about the hiring of Capt. William Collins as the pilot adviser to navigate the river route portion of the trip. The ship is both ocean-going and river-going, and an experienced river pilot is required on each trip to provide “local knowledge” on the inland waterways system. Pepper said he was confident in Collins’ abilities and in his experience having been hired previously to pilot the Delta Mariner.
In transcripts from the Voyager Data Recorder of the bridge conversation leading up to the allision, ship’s master Capt. Lloyd Patten asks Collins about turning the vessel around after Collins curses.
“If can’t slow it down fast enough, turn it around,” said Patten.
“No, no, I think we can go through these,” said Collins, referring to the bridge span the Delta Mariner hit.
“Which ones?” said John Newland, chief mate. Newland was at the helm of the ship and was the senior officer on watch at the time of the crash.
“The ones we’re going for, but isn’t that the highest one?” said Collins.
Pepper testified that if he had been on the Delta Mariner, he would have followed the lights in going under the bridge. Crew members have said that the only lights visible on the bridge were the ones on the section they attempted to pass under.
The Coast Guard had sent out an alert over the radio warning that the lights were out on the Eggners Ferry Bridge, but former second mate Shaun Quinn said that the weather created a lot of noise and the crew did not hear the notice to turn to the emergency channel for the alert. Quinn added that the Coast Guard had not put out any written alert on its website of the lighting outage.
Quinn resigned from his job at Foss Maritime a few weeks after the incident. He said it was a personal decision, and that he did not receive any disciplinary action from the company. Quinn said he had been employed by the company since Sept. 30, 2011, and had worked on board the ship for only one full trip before the incident, which occurred 24 hours after the Delta Mariner left port in Decatur, Ala.
Foss Maritime senior vice president of operations Scott Merritt was questioned about procedure and safety practices on board the Delta Mariner, and about Collins’ hiring. Merritt said Collins’ greater experience was on the lower Mississippi River. However, he had experience navigating the Tennessee River as well, and the management team was comfortable with Collins’ amount of knowledge, and with his performance in prior trips with the vessel, Merritt said.
Merritt said since the time of the incident, Foss Maritime has been conducting its own review of procedures and practices on the ship. Merritt added that the Delta Mariner undergoes a much more thorough safety evaluation than many other commercial vessels that travel the river system.
Hearings were scheduled to resume Thursday morning at 7:15 a.m.