Tug repeatedly warned before collision

August 2, 2008 9:00:28 PM PDT
The pilot of a massive tanker involved in a collision on the Mississippi River repeatedly warns a tug boat pushing a barge to get out of the way, but no one on the smaller boat responds, according to radio transmissions released Saturday by the Coast Guard. The July 23 wreck caused thousands of gallons of fuel to spill and shut down part of the nation's busiest inland waterway for several days. The newly released audio recordings and radar from that day show the tug boat, Mel Oliver, crossing the river in front of the tanker, Tintamara.

"Mel Oliver, come in cap, you're crossing the bottom of a ship coming at you," a Coast Guard traffic controller says.

As the pilot of the tanker becomes increasingly distressed, he calls out to the captain of the Mel Oliver again and again.

"This ain't good, man," the pilot says. Then, as the two dots on a radar intersect, he says, "We just took his tow. The barge is right in front of us and we're running it over."

The pilot of the tanker was not identified.

Also Saturday, the Coast Guard released the results of its preliminary investigation. The Coast Guard found that the person operating the Mel Oliver boat had an apprentice mate's license, but no one on the vessel was properly documented to guide it. The Coast Guard said the captain of the tug was not aboard at the time of the collision.

"We can say he was on land," Chief Petty Officer Mike O'Berry said of the captain, declining further comment.

The tug's captain and steersman apprentice, and the pilot of the tanker have been summoned to a hearing in New Orleans on Aug. 12, the Coast Guard said.

There were no mechanical or electrical problems with the massive Tintamara, or questions about the pilot's competency, said Coast Guard, which would not comment further on the findings of the preliminary investigation.

Normal shipping traffic was continuing on the Mississippi on Saturday, though ships were running slower than normal to avoid creating a wake that could hamper cleanup efforts.

The barge was carrying about 419,000 gallons of heavy oil, though the Coast Guard has not determined exactly how much was spilled. About 139,000 gallons of an oil-water mix has been recovered.

Crews were trying to remove oil from another tanker protruding from the river's surface, and hoped to remove a tanker, believed to be intact, from the bottom of the river.

The tugboat is currently being inspected for mechanical or electrical problems, authorities said.


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