GONZALES — A top executive with Cooper Consolidated, the owner of a large crane barge that accidentally rammed into the Sunshine Bridge last fall, testified Wednesday that company officials calculated the barge's total height last summer but kept that information among three top company officials, not with lower-rung managers in the field, to avoid misinformation.
The testimony from Wendell Landry, Cooper's director of stevedores, before a federal panel investigating the Oct. 12 crash laid out a procedure that counted on tow companies and their captains to seek out top Cooper executives to ensure the safety of hauls with huge company barge cranes.
Landry also testified that a day before the crash, he did calculate whether the barge, known as the Mr. Ervin, would make it under the bridge’s main channel span and found it would do so easily.
Though it’s not clear with whom Landry shared that information, he didn’t make the same calculation for the lower, western span that barge did go under because he never thought company cranes ever went under anything but the main channel.
“I’ve never known our cranes to go any place else … than the center span,” he said before the U.S. Coast Guard and National Transportation and Safety Board panel.
A month after the crash, Cooper changed its policy to require tow companies moving the cranes to use bridge’s main channel, usually the highest point, he added.
The Kristin Alexis, a Marquette Transportation towboat working under charter with Cooper, 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 highway traffic for months.
Once a voyage is underway, under maritime rules, the ultimate responsibility for a vessel and its tow lies with the tugboat’s captain.
The panel is trying to find the probable cause and to determine whether any regulatory changes are needed to avoid this kind of crash again. The Coast Guard does not inspect crane barges like the Mr. Ervin and is just starting to fully bring tugboats under its purview.
Measurements released since the crash show the crane barge is 135.4 feet to 135.9 feet tall from the water line.
The western portion of the Sunshine Bridge had about 128 feet of clearance last Oct. 12; the main channel span is about 24 feet higher. The space between the water line and the bridge, known as the air gap, varies with river levels.
Landry's testimony Wednesday about the limited circle with access to the crane’s dimensions last fall came a day after two lower ranking Cooper employees involved with the crane and communications with the Kristin Alexis the night and morning of the crash testified they didn't know the crane's height at the time or gave answers suggesting they underestimated the crane's actual height by 6 feet.
Under questioning from federal investigators and an aggressive interrogation by a Marquette lawyer, Landry said he did not personally interact with tow companies or their crew who were planning voyages with Cooper vessels. He expected dispatchers to relay questions from those crews to him about a crane’s dimensions.
But he added that there was no formal policy for the dispatchers to regularly check on those heights with him before they directed towboat crews to move the vessels.
Capt. Eugene Picquet III, who was operating the tugboat at the time, testified Tuesday he used the western span — a legal channel for maritime traffic — because a tugboat with barges was headed downstream at the time. Downstream vessels have the right of way.
Also, Picquet had taken over from his master captain, Desmond Smith, near the western span after Smith had picked up the crane in Convent and had some conflict with Cooper crew members about a large bucket blocking part of his forward view.
In addition, Picquet said, the huge base of the Mr. Ervin crane and its massive buckets obstructed his view on his right. Though he had a crew member on lookout, he was worried about hitting a bridge pier on the right that was out of view.
With those visual obstructions, which also affected radar, Picquet testified, he thought it would be easier to navigate under the western span and hug the western river bank, on his left, where he could see. But he didn’t account for the lower height of the span because he thought Smith had.
Smith, who had overall authority on the tug, and Picquet said earlier this week they did not check with Marquette or Cooper officials to verify the crane's height, take steps to calculate how much space they had under the bridge, or use their stop work authority to halt the voyage.
Smith said he relied on word of mouth and his experience with the Mr. Ervin and other Cooper cranes to estimate its ability to pass under the bridge.
Cooper's tight control on the dimensions of the Mr. Ervin and other cranes in its fleet came to light Wednesday under questioning from Commander Matthew Meskun, the U.S. Coast Guard senior investigating officer.
He asked Landry if there was any reason other Cooper employees might believe the crane had a different height.
"Certainly, there's certain folks that we share this information with … because other folks we don't want them putting that information out," Landry said. "Because the chance of inaccuracy is real, so we keep it to a close-knit group."
"So, it is possible that some Cooper employees were speculating about how high the crane was and had inaccurate information," Meskun asked in response.
"Oh, definitely, they can speculate. You'd be surprised what you hear on the river," Landry quipped.
Chad Nelson, the Cooper dispatcher who ordered the Mr. Ervin pickup Oct. 11, testified Tuesday that he would have referred questions from towboat captains about the crane's height to Adams and other field supervisors, not the top executives.
But under questioning from Cooper's attorney Wednesday, Landry said that knowing the crane height wasn't part of the field supervisor's job.
Since the crash, Landry has shared his spreadsheet with Cooper dispatchers but it is for their reference only. They are expected to make height inquiries with him or other top executives, he said.
Testimony is expected to resume Thursday with officials from the state highway department and the Coast Guard.