GONZALES — One of the major unanswered questions about the morning a huge crane barge crashed into the Sunshine Bridge has been the identity of the pilot operating the Marquette Transportation tugboat pushing the barge up the Mississippi River in the pre-dawn darkness last fall. 

In the months since the Oct. 12 crash, the U.S. Coast Guard has refused to provide any new details while it, along with the National Transportation Safety Board, investigated what happened.

A newly released schedule of witnesses expected to testify next week in a weeklong public investigative hearing sheds some light on the people working on or with that tugboat, the Kristin Alexis, and the crane barge. But the schedule leaves unclear who was operating the tugboat at the time the barge smashed major support beams on the bridge.

Lt. Rachel Ault, a U.S. Coast Guard spokeswoman in New Orleans, couldn't say Wednesday who was operating the Kristin Alexis but the topic will be an important point of interest for investigators.

"That will definitely be a question that is asked to all those witnesses," Ault said.

The Coast Guard and the NTSB have opened what's known as a marine casualty investigation into the crash. Their hearing schedule, which begins Monday and lasts until Saturday, May 11, lists a series of Marquette, Cooper Consolidated and other maritime workers, including two people identified as captains with the Kristin Alexis.

According to the schedule, Desmond Smith was the Kristin Alexis' master captain, the person who had overall oversight of the vessel. He is scheduled to be the lead witness Monday morning.

Eugene Picquet III, expected to speak Tuesday, is identified as the "pilot captain" of the Kristin Alexis. A pilot captain is someone who may have more localized knowledge of a waterway and may operate a vessel in that area or when the master captain is asleep or otherwise occupied.

Ault said both men worked for Marquette, the owner of the tugboat. Cooper Consolidated owns the crane barge, the D/B Mr. Erwin.

Cooper Consolidated officials have said previously the barge's crane was down and in its storage cradle and none of their employees were operating it at the time of the crash.

Immediate attempts to reach Smith and Picquet were unsuccessful Wednesday afternoon by telephone and social media messaging.

The men are among more than 20 witnesses expected to testify. Other witnesses include two deckhands on the Kristin Alexis, several employees of Cooper Consolidated; Coast Guard and other federal and state officials; and representatives of maritime industry interests.

The barge crash caused millions of dollars in damage to the bridge, shut it for more than a month and left it with partial lane closures into the spring, months later. The four-lane bridge is in St. James Parish but also links the two sides of populous Ascension Parish and serves as critical conduit for people and businesses along the Mississippi south of Baton Rouge.

The crane barge hit the bridge's western span, which is lower than the main span in the center of the river. The barge became stuck under the bridge near Donaldsonville for several hours and caused serious structural damage to steel support beams, state officials have said.

All lanes on the bridge were subsequently closed until Dec. 1 and caused major disruptions in traffic flow for the river region, with over hour-long detours for commuters living on one side of the river and working on the other. 

Coast Guard Commander Matthew J. Meskun, a senior investigating officer and a section chief of the Coast Guard's inspections and investigations program, and Capt. Michael J. Kucharski, a senior marine accident investigator with the NTSB, will lead the investigation. A biography provided by the Coast Guard says Kucharski has 23 years of seagoing experience on freighters and tankers and previously worked as a maritime consultant before joining NTSB in 2014.

According to information shared by the Coast Guard on Wednesday, the Kristin Alexis was within a legal "phase-in" period for new federal inspection rules for tugboats and so had not yet had its first full inspection.

But the 62-foot-long vessel, which was built in 1978, was still current for its last inspection under the old regulatory regime, in which the Coast Guard conducted less-intensive safety checks on tugboats.

Ault, the Coast Guard spokeswoman, said the tug was in compliance at the time of the crash.

Marquette Transportation, like other operators around the nation, must have 25 percent of its fleet go through the new, more-intensive inspections in 2019 and the remainder by 2020. Ault said the company can choose which vessels get inspected first.    

According to the Federal Register listing for those new rules, the changes are more fully bringing towing vessels under a Coast Guard safety and inspection regime amid concerns from Congress in the early 2000s about tugboat crashes with bridges. Two of those crashes led the bridges to collapse and sent vehicles into the water, killing nearly 20 people, the Federal Register says.

In October 2013, the Kristin Alexis capsized on the lower Mississippi near the New Orleans Container Terminal, sending five crew members into the river. The tugboat, which Marquette didn't own at the time, and another vessel were involved in a heavy lift operation, according to a Coast Guard incident database.

All the crew were rescued without injury, but the towboat sustained an estimated $900,000 in damage, the database says. The database does not indicate that the capsizing ever led to sanctions for any of the companies involved. 

Meskun, the Coast Guard commander, said in January that the hearings will bring together key parties for public testimony and constitute the final stage of the Coast Guard's fact-finding before investigators analyze what they have found.

Meskun, who is from the Coast Guard's Atlantic Area Command in Portsmouth, Virginia, has said a report will follow that factual analysis and make findings, including referrals for enforcement action. Those actions can range from civil penalties for companies or people to the suspension and revocation of mariners' licenses.

The hearing will be at the Lamar-Dixon Expo Center in Gonzales, beginning 8 a.m. Monday.


Follow David J. Mitchell on Twitter, @NewsieDave.