In the early morning darkness of Oct. 12, 2018, a 136-foot-tall crane mounted on a barge crashed into the Sunshine Bridge over the Mississippi River.

The four-lane bridge in St. James Parish had to close for 49 days, disrupting commerce and snarling the commutes of thousands of residents. The damage took $11 million to repair.

The debacle highlighted the vulnerability of the few crossings over an increasingly busy lower Mississippi, where three of the nation's largest ports by volume are located between Baton Rouge and New Orleans. The state's top bridge engineer later said the damage was so severe that it could have caused the whole thing to tumble into the river. 

"If you ran the numbers, on paper, it probably should have come down," David Miller, chief maintenance engineer for the state Department of Transportation and Development, told a federal panel in May 2019.

Three years later, much remains unresolved.

National Transportation Safety Board investigators have determined what went wrong. But the Coast Guard has yet to decide whether anyone involved in the crash will face penalties and has yet to issue any recommendations for how to prevent a similar crash.

The state remains embroiled in a lawsuit with Cooper Consolidated, the owner of the crane barge that hit the bridge, and Marquette Transportation Co., which owned the tugboat pushing the barge, to try to recoup the repair costs and seek punitive damages. Up to $10 million is at stake, court filings show. A federal bench trial is set for Feb. 20.

What went wrong

The NTSB blames the crash on a lack of advance planning by the captain and pilot of the Kristin Alexis towboat pushing the Mr. Ervin crane barge upriver that Oct. 12 morning.

The agency found fault with Marquette, who employed the two men, for a lack of oversight on its crews' operations. And it criticized the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration for publishing nautical maps with inaccurate bridge heights on lower Mississippi bridges.

The Mr. Ervin is a former South American surface mining crane that had been converted for maritime use. It is normally docked at Cooper Consolidated's Darrow operations just upriver of the Sunshine Bridge.

At the time of the crash, the crane barge was being pushed back toward its home berth under the bridge's lower, western channel — not the more commonly used central channel. The central channel has more clearance because the bridge is arched, so the highest point is at the center.

The NTSB found Marquette Transportation needed to do more training on the company's bridge transiting procedures and had never written down a "rule of thumb" that big crane barges should be pushed under bridges' main channels only.

Though the crane barge's boom was lowered in its cradle, an "A" frame at the top of the boom hit the bridge's downstream side.

The crash happened shortly after 1:40 a.m., about an hour and a half after a watch handover between the pilot and the captain.

NTSB investigators said the men did not discuss the planned crossing under the bridge, its height or which channel under the bridge to use. And they did not stop the boat, though they had concerns about their ability to see around the crane and other obstructions on the towboat's bow.

Critically, both men were operating under assumptions — based on the pilot's experience with other Cooper cranes and what one dock worker had told the captain — that the Mr. Ervin's height was 6 feet shorter than it actually was. The crane also didn't have signage stating what its height was, according to testimony to federal investigators.

The computerized navigation system in the Kristin Alexis was based on a NOAA map that had overstated the height of the Sunshine Bridge's western span by about 4.2 feet.

The crane barge was still three feet taller than the bridge clearance and may still have hit it, though. The tugboat pilot thought he had three feet of clearance because of the inaccurate assumptions about the height of the crane, investigators found.

NTSB has already recommended NOAA correct bridge heights on maritime maps.

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Though the Coast Guard report is still pending, the 2015 Coast Guard task force on bridge strikes has already recommended that towboat captains have the responsibility to verify their clearance under bridges. But it also said the owners of crane barges and other vessels have a duty to tell pilots how tall their equipment is.

The pilot told investigators that his view on the right had been obstructed by the crane and its 17.5-foot-tall bucket, which had been stowed on the towboat's bow. He said that caused him to take the western bridge span to avoid other river traffic that uses the higher main channel. 

The pilot, who had been licensed as a master pilot for two years, had been with Marquette for three weeks. He was given a copy of the company's bridge crossing and other policies and signed an acknowledgment form, but the NTSB found he never received any training on it.

Damon Judd, Marquette president and CEO, said his company has appreciated the Coast Guard and NTSB's thorough investigations and remains committed to a "Zero Harm safety mission."

"While there were no injuries or environmental releases in the incident, we recognize that the closure of the Sunshine Bridge three years ago created a significant disruption for Louisiana citizens that traveled the La. 70 route daily," Judd said. "We apologize for the inconvenience this situation created for residents and motorists."

Judd added that the NTSB report showed the company had policies in place at the time of the Sunshine Bridge crash "that, if followed correctly, would have prevented" the crash.

"We share the NTSB’s opinion that, given the concerns the Captain and Pilot had with the restricted visibility resulting from the placement of the crane’s bucket on the barge, they should have exercised their Stop Work Responsibility, as required by Marquette policy," Judd said.

Marquette says it has changed its safety management system and operating processes, including further clarification of its voyage planning requirements and forms and enhancement of its mariner training.

Timeline uncertain for Coast Guard report

While the NTSB issued its report in mid-2020, the parallel Coast Guard report has been under administrative review at headquarters in Washington D.C. since around the same time. That report will include recommendations for how to prevent a similar crash and could lead to fines or other sanctions against the companies. 

Coast Guard Lt. Cmdr. James Fothergill said the length of the review process is "heavily dependent on what the number of safety recommendation (are)," so the time period isn't unusual for this serious of an incident with this much evidence.

"At this point, it's really difficult to nail down a timeline because I know there are going to be a number of safety recommendations," he said.

Fothergill wouldn't say what kind of recommendations might be coming.

At the time of the crash, Marquette had been party to at least 32 other bridge collisions in the nation in the prior five and a half years. And, at that time, it had not received any fines from the Coast Guard.

The company was also just five months removed, at that time, from a barge collision at Mardi Gras World on the Mississippi in New Orleans that caused $3 million in damage to the complex, near the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center.

Another Marquette towboat, the Taylor Marie, pushed another large crane barge into another Mississippi River bridge just six weeks before the Sunshine Bridge crash.

A Coast Guard investigation determined that the Taylor Marie captain did not verify the height of the Randy W crane and didn't know the height of the Gramercy-area bridge. Marquette didn't let employees know about the crash, including the men pushing the Mr. Ervin under the Sunshine Bridge.

Now-closed Coast Guard investigations into Mardi Gras World and Randy W crashes did not result in financial penalties against Marquette or other involved parties, according to Coast Guard Lt. Emily Marks, senior investigating officer for the New Orleans region.

In 2015, the Coast Guard task force highlighted an analysis of the past 10 years of bridge crashes. It found that the 26-state Coast Guard district, which includes the lower Mississippi region around Baton Rouge and New Orleans, saw nearly three times as many bridge strikes as any other Coast Guard district in the nation.

Editor's Note: The date for a federal trial over recouping the cost of repairs to the Sunshine Bridge has been changed to reflect the correct scheduled start of Feb. 14.


Email David J. Mitchell at dmitchell@theadvocate.com

Follow David J. Mitchell on Twitter, @NewsieDave.