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Tugboats and barge traffic head up the Mississippi River on Friday, May 3, 2019, near the eastern side of Sunshine Bridge in St. James Parish. The U.S. Coast Guard and National Transportation Safety Board will open an investigative hearing Monday in Gonzales into a crash last fall when a large crane being pushed upriver hit the bridge on its western side, background, near Donaldsonville.

GONZALES — Workers on the crane barge that crashed into the Sunshine Bridge last fall, as well as the workers on the tugboat pushing it, had a limited understanding of the massive vessel’s actual height the morning it smashed into the Mississippi River span, according to testimony at a hearing on the incident.

Capt. Eugene Picquet III, of Gretna, who operated the tugboat at the time of the Oct. 12 crash, said Tuesday he should have double-checked the height of the barge and bridge before taking control of the vessels near Donaldsonville but assumed his master captain had everything in order before coming on shift some time after midnight.

Two employees of Cooper Consolidated, the owner of the barge, told the federal panel they didn’t know how tall the massive vessel at the time of the crash or gave testimony suggesting the barge’s height was about 6 feet lower than it really was.

Cooper attorneys, in cross-examination, tried to recast the testimony of one of those employees about the crane’s height as really an incomplete explanation of what the employee knew and didn’t reflect an inaccurate understanding of the true height.

Since Monday, a federal panel investigating the crash has focused on what the Marquette Transportation tugboat operators and deckhands had done and failed to do to avoid the crash. Under maritime rules, the captains operating the tugboat are responsible for the safe operation of their vessel and whatever they are towing.

But the afternoon testimony Tuesday hinted that good information on the crane’s total height, 135.9 feet, wasn’t readily available to day-to-day mariners at the time of the crash, even had Marquette’s employees checked more deeply.

The Kristin Alexis, a Marquette Transportation tugboat, ran the Cooper barge crane into the lower, western span of the bridge shortly before 1:50 a.m. Oct. 12, critically damaging major support beams and disrupting cross river traffic flows for months.

Commuters and commerce using the bridge daily went from a 10-minute trip to a more than hour-long detour after the crash that led to a total bridge shutdown stretching on for a month-and-a-half.

According to map and river gauge data, the alternative western channel under which Picquet drove the barge was around 128 feet above the water at the time, several feet lower than the crane barge. The space under the bridge, known as the “air gap,” varies with river levels.

Since Monday, the U.S. Coast Guard and the National Transportation Safety Board have been conducting an investigative hearing into the crash.

Michael Kucharski, an NTSB investigator on the panel, brought to light questions that Cooper’s own employees appeared to have about the Mr. Ervin’s height when Kucharski showed Judson Adams, a Cooper supervisor, a survey report of the crane barge.

The report shows the barge was 135.9 feet tall from the bottom of the barge to the crane’s peak, something the report calls the “total air draft.”

“Is this the first time you were aware it was 135 feet,” Kucharski asked Adams, who was in charge of the Cooper dock workers in Convent, where the crane had been awaiting pickup from the Kristin Alexis the night of Oct. 11.

“I wasn’t aware it was 135 feet,” Adams responded, “until after the bridge incident."

Adams said he thought it was about 130 feet because that was the figure Cooper employees had been bragging about when the company bought both the Mr. Ervin and another large crane, the Hulk, from a coal company in late 2017 and refurbished them for use on the river sometime in 2018.

Adams told Kucharski that the Tuesday hearing was the first time he had seen the survey report about the crane’s actual dimensions.

Adams’ testimony came after a Cooper dispatcher told the same panel that he didn’t know the height of the crane at the time of the crash, though he has since been given a spreadsheet with that and other crane and bridge information on it.

Chad Nelson, a dispatcher for Cooper involved the morning the crane crashed into the bridge, testified that tugboat captains had only randomly asked about the height of Cooper cranes before the crash. But, whenever he was asked, Nelson testified, he referred the tugboat captains to the Cooper supervisor in charge of a given crane at the time.

Nelson testified that Adams was the supervisor for the Mr. Ervin on night of Oct. 11 and morning of Oct. 12.

Adams’s apparent description of the crane as being 130 feet tall matched the height that Desmond Smith, the master captain of the Marquette tugboat, had testified to on Monday. He said he had heard that height for the Mr. Ervin previously from an unidentified Cooper employee.

According to testimony by Smith and Picquet, the heights of the Mr. Ervin and other crane barges owned by Cooper and other companies are not readily shown on the vessels.

Smith testified Monday that he sought crane crew members or other word-of-mouth sources to get a height figures on cranes.

But Smith also testified he never checked with anyone else about the height of the Mr. Ervin on Oct. 12, including Marquette employees who could have helped. Nor did Smith calculate how much space he had under the bridge the morning of the crash.

During the two days of testimony, Cooper Consolidated attorneys have argued that the 130-foot figure represented the distance from the top of the crane down to the top of the barge deck that is supporting the crane. An extra six feet or so also had to factored in for the total height to account for the draft of the crane’s barge.

Under cross-examination by a Cooper attorney, Adams, the Cooper supervisor, acknowledged he wasn’t the mariner who would consider the draft of a barge. Adams also agreed with the attorney’s explanation that the 130-foot figure he had given earlier to the NTSB investigator didn’t really represent the full height of the barge because it didn’t include the barge draft.

Adams made that admission to his employer’s lawyer, though the Mr. Ervin survey report that the NTSB investigator had showed Adams earlier made a distinction between the height of the crane itself and the combined height of the barge and crane together.

The survey report says the crane’s height from its top down to the barge deck is 128.6 feet.

Picquet, the operator of the tugboat, detailed the moment before and after he hit the bridge and reviewed audio and maritime mapping software recordings of the moments up through the crash.

Before the crash, Picquet also testified, his master captain, Smith, advised him that everything was fine with the coming voyage, despite arguments that Smith and deckhands said they had with Cooper employees about removing a visual obstruction, a large bucket, on the barge’s bow.

Picquet testified Smith didn't tell him whether he should wait for Cooper workers to clear the bucket before going under the bridge. And Smith didn't tell him how high the bridge and barge were.

"You know, I should have asked what the air draft on the crane was," Picquet said. "That's something I should've did, that I should've took it upon myself to do by him not telling me."

Air draft reflects how much space a ship needs to safely pass under an obstruction.

Nevertheless, Picquet said, he was confident about going under the bridge based on his experience with other Cooper crane barges. He said he was more concerned about hitting the bridge piers due to his limited visibility from the barge.

Testimony in the hearing resumes Wednesday.


Follow David J. Mitchell on Twitter, @NewsieDave.