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A worker peers over the side near the damaged area, right. Gov. John Bel Edwards took a boat tour of the damage to the Sunshine Bridge and then had a press conference about projected repairs to the structure Wednesday Oct. 24, 2018, in St. James Parish, La.

GONZALES — A federal probe into the barge crash that has closed the Sunshine Bridge is still in its early stages but is driving toward answering a key question.

Why did a 200-foot-long crane barge owned by Cooper Consolidated and moved upriver by Marquette Transportation smash into the 1.5-mile Mississippi River span even though the height of the crane and the bridge were both knowable?

While that "root cause" inquiry gathers steam, towboat captains, barge industry executives and Coast Guard officials say the bottom line is the towboat captain bore the ultimate responsibility of ensuring the barge did not hit the bridge. 

"In the end, once that boat hooked up to the barge and departed, the captain ... took sole command of the barge and all equipment on it," said Capt. David Whitehurst, a semi-retired Bayou Sorrel towboat captain with 45 years as a licensed mariner. 

The crash -- which occurred sometime in the morning darkness before 2:23 a.m. Oct. 12 -- has shut the critical river crossing while repairs are made, which state officials estimate will take until January. In the meantime, people who relied on the bridge to get to work or transport goods must keep driving 40 to 50 miles out of the way, adding at least an hour to their travel.

The U.S. Coast Guard, which oversees the nation’s navigable waterways and is part of the probe, does not require captains of towboats and other vessels to receive advanced approval for large loads passing under the bridges and power lines crossing rivers and canals.

But Whitehurst and several others said towboat captains are expected to develop a voyage plan that ensures the safe travel of their vessel and cargo.

“Vessel captains are responsible for ensuring their vessels do not exceed the height of a bridge when transiting underneath it,” Lt. Cmdr. Travis S. Collier of the Coast Guard's New Orleans sector said in a written response to questions last week.

Z. David DeLoach, a former longtime licensed captain and owner of DeLoach Marine Service in Port Allen, said captains must calculate the available clearance using published bridge clearance heights and accounting for shifting river levels, tidal movements and the known height of their cargo.

For the height of the cargo, he said, captains often must rely on the barge owner to provide the correct figure. DeLoach said he was part of a special Coast Guard committee a few years ago that helped establish a best practice that barge owners should be responsible for providing accurate height information to the captains who are moving their vessels.

"He can't just say, 'Oh, it'll clear,'" DeLoach said of barge owners.

According to bridge and river data, the bridge's center span was likely about 151 feet above the surface of the river the morning of the crash. But the western span, which the crane barge went under, was closer to 143 feet above the water at the time. That span is lower due to the bridge's arch.

Known as the Mr. Ervin, the crane barge is described by Cooper Consolidated in promotional literature as one of its larger and stronger cranes, though its height isn't described.

Cooper, a joint venture of Cooper/T. Smith and Consolidated Grain and Barge Enterprises, bought and refurbished the crane in late 2017 after it had been used for more than a decade in a Colombian coal operation.

Erik Cooper, executive director of Cooper Consolidated, did not answer questions submitted last week about what his company told Marquette or the captain of the towboat about the crane's height. He noted his company was not operating the barge at the time of the crash.

Whitehurst, DeLoach and others in the industry said having barges pass under the bridge's far western span isn't unusual. The span is away from the main river traffic and water there has weaker currents.

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Several in the industry also said moving heavy cargo so early in the morning, in the dark, isn't unusual for the busy maritime corridor on the Mississippi.  

"We operate 24/7," said Capt. Steve Hathorn, a river pilot who is president of the New Orleans Baton Rouge Steamship Pilots Association. "You don’t shut down because the sun goes down."

Capt. Tom Kaminski, chief of prevention for the 8th Coast Guard District in New Orleans, said Friday that the probe, which also includes the National Transportation Safety Board, remains in its preliminary phase.

During that phase, investigators keep facts close the vest, but investigators could be crossing a key threshold soon, he said.

"By the end of next week,” Kaminski said, "they will have completed enough of their preliminary (investigation) to make the determination on exactly what level of involvement that we'll have."

He added that the Coast Guard will also probably be able to describe how intensive of an investigation it will pursue. The most serious category, known as a formal investigation, most often results in identification of the parties involved and often public hearings.

Details on the incident have been in short supply. No one has yet made public the name of the towboat captain, the identity of who was piloting it at the time of the crash, where the vessel was headed and where it was coming from.

Still, some facts have emerged. A report by the St. James Parish Sheriff's Office from the first day of the crash said deputies were told the crane "was up."

Late last week, Marquette and Cooper Consolidated spokesmen and Kaminski all said the "boom" -- or arm of the crane -- was down and in its cradle, as other industry executives have said should be expected for passage under a vertical obstruction.

Kaminski, the Coast Guard official, added a large, fixed pedestal on the crane — called an “A-frame” — is actually what is believed to have hit the bridge.

A Port of South Louisiana incident report The Advocate obtained last week through a public records request also sheds more light on the aftermath of the crash.

The report says the crane remained under the Sunshine Bridge for nearly four hours after the crash as tugs kept it position against the Mississippi’s currents. The report described the crane as being “stuck” under bridge.

“The barge crew pumped water into the barge to lower it and they were able to free the crane barge from the bridge,” the report says.

By adding water, the crew made the barge sit lower in the water, reducing the crane’s overall height. The barge was free of the bridge by 6:01 a.m., the port report says.

The Advocate reporter Sam Karlin contributed to this story.

Follow David J. Mitchell on Twitter, @NewsieDave.