GONZALES — An ill-fated chain of events that ended with a damaging crane barge crash into the Sunshine Bridge began two hours earlier when the towering vessel was unmoored from a dock in Convent sooner than the captain of the tugboat Kristin Alexis expected, the mariner in charge of the tug testified Monday.
"It was chaos," former Marquette Transportation Master Capt. Desmond Smith said of the early steps taken to get the massive crane barge moving on the Mississippi River.
Smith acknowledged before a federal investigative panel that he never did calculate how much space existed under the Mississippi River bridge upriver near Donaldsonville during high water conditions last fall.
He also didn’t use his authority to stop work to reassess what was happening and, not long afterward, handed control over to a less experienced pilot just starting his shift 30 to 40 minutes after midnight Oct. 12, according to testimony at a public hearing being conducted by federal investigators.
The U.S. Coast Guard and National Transportation Safety Board have been looking into the crash through formal marine casualty probe for months and opened a week-long public hearing Monday at Lamar-Dixon Expo Center near Gonzales.
Capt. Eugene Picquet III, the former second in command on the Kristin Aleixs, ended up running the Cooper Consolidated barge crane into the lower, western span of the bridge about 1:50 am. Oct. 12, critically damaging major support beams and disrupting cross river traffic flows for months, according to testimony.
Governor John Bel Edwards got up close and personal with the damaged Sunshine Bridge on Wednesday morning. He rode in a crew boat and up a cra…
Commuters and commerce using the bridge daily went from a 10-minute trip to a more than hourlong detour during a shutdown that stretched on for a month-and-a-half.
Smith and two other witnesses in the daylong hearing Monday were pressed over the details of the events leading up the crash as well as their training, understanding and application of Marquette’s safety policies. Coast Guard and NTSB investigators as well as lawyers for Marquette and Cooper all asked the witnesses questions.
GONZALES — A monumental miscalculation happened somehow in the early morning darkness along the Mississippi River just southeast of Donaldsonv…
Questioned by a Marquette lawyer, Smith testified he was distracted and became focused on a visual obstruction on the crane barge — a large bucket — that he could not get Cooper employees to remove before Picquet took control near the bridge’s western side.
The captains were supposed to be taking the crane barge to Cooper Consolidated’s fleeting area near Darrow, upstream of the bridge.
Smith said he didn’t discuss the bridge height with Picquet in a safety meeting before handing off control but focused on removal of the bucket.
“That was mostly .. that’s what we talked about,” Smith said. “We were discussing everything revolving around that bucket.”
Former Kristin Alexis mate Blaise Rudolph testified he and another deckhand on shift with Picquet early on Oct. 12 had to stand lookout with radios on the bow of crane barge while they tried to pass under the bridge because of the bucket and other visual obstructions on the barge.
GONZALES — One of the major unanswered questions about the morning a huge crane barge crashed into the Sunshine Bridge has been the identity o…
Smith told the investigative panel that he had pushed the Mr. Ervin under the bridge's main span once before safely but didn't calculate if he had enough room during high water conditions on the morning of Oct. 12.
Smith testified someone with Cooper Consolidated had told him previously that the height of the crane was 130 feet high, but said he never checked with Marquette’s port captain or a Cooper dispatcher for a more exact figure. He also said he never recorded a height on a Marquette voyage plan to which Picquet could have referred.
In cross examination, Cooper attorneys questioned Smith about the 130-foot figure and whether it reflected the height of the barge and crane together or just the crane itself. If the latter was the case, the attorneys pointed out, the crane’s height actually could be 6 to 7 feet higher based on the draft of the barge.
According to map and river gauge data, the alternative western channel Picquet used is about 24 feet lower than that main channel that Smith said he had used successfully previously. The space under the side channel was about 128 feet above the water at the time of the crash.
The Sunshine Bridge has an arch built into it, so the sides are lower than the center, where the main channel is located.
In explaining the distracting events leading up to Picquet’s assumption of control of the barge, Smith and Marquette deckhand Brandon Payne told investigators that workers at the Convent Marine Terminal on the east bank of the river — men they believed worked for Cooper— let loose some of the lines to the barge before Smith was able to properly attach the front of his tug to the back of the barge.
Smith testified that he was hurriedly trying to get his tug in the rear of the barge, which was drifting from the dock, and keep it from running into a large arm hanging from the dock.
In that haste, he testified, he failed to notice initially that the large crane bucket wasn’t in the normal spot and obstructed his view, which was already limited by other parts of the crane and other buckets.
“It was like a chain reaction thing," Smith said. "Like my attention wasn’t even on the bucket. I was more trying to get faced up and stopped from hitting that arm.”
He continued, “It was chaos. Put it that way. We were faced with things and, at that time, I hadn’t even noticed the bucket yet.”
Once he got control, Smith testified, his focus turned to trying to get Cooper employees to reposition the bucket. But he and Payne said they refused.
Smith testified that he overheard Cooper Consolidated employees say on the radio they weren't "moving the ... bucket. They didn't care if we ran aground or whatever."
Smith said he reported the problem to a Cooper dispatcher and eventually Cooper officials agreed to return to his towboat in a crew boat and move the bucket.
Smith ended up repositioning the barge to the west bank of the river to get it out of way of down river traffic while they waited for a crew boat with Cooper workers, Smith testified. That’s when Smith handed off control to Picquet.
At the same time, Smith acknowledged he didn't specifically tell Picquet to wait for the Cooper crew to arrive and Picquet ended up heading under the bridge with the bucket still an obstruction and lookouts on the barge’s bow.
Picquet is expected to testify Tuesday morning when the Coast Guard and NTSB panel resume taking testimony.
Can't see video below? Click here.