By HARRY R. WEBER and DAN MURTAUGH
By the time the ships pilots realized they were on a
crash course, it was too late.
The fog was just beginning to lift on the Houston Ship
Channel midday March 22 as a bulk carrier and a fuel barge
found themselves three-quarters of a mile apart. For five
minutes, they exchanged radio messages as they tried slowing
down, speeding up and reversing while nearing a collision
that closed one of the worlds busiest waterways for
three days, according to US Coast Guard recordings and radar
data obtained by Bloomberg under the Freedom of
I can put it down to a dead slow, but that still
aint gonna stop, the freighters pilot said,
according to the recordings.
The crash caused 4,000 bbl of fuel oil to spill and disrupted
about $1.5 billion in commerce in the USs largest
export gateway. As authorities work to determine the cause
and clean up the mess, the incident is highlighting the
fragility of a critical bottleneck in the countrys
energy network. About 400 vessels pass each day through the
52-mile long channel where the crash occurred.
The Summer Wind, a 585-foot Liberian-flagged vessel operated
by Cleopatra Shipping Agency, was traveling at 12 knots, and
the Miss Susan, a Kirby Inland Marine tug that was towing a
barge carrying fuel oil, at 4 knots, when the crew members
started communicating at about 12:30 p.m., five minutes
before the collision, the recordings and radar data show.
Investigators are looking into all the factors that
give pilots wrinkles around the eyes, including speed,
navigation decisions, visibility and weather, Steven Nerheim,
director of the Coast Guards Vessel Traffic Service for
Houston-Galveston, said in an interview March 31. He said he
hasnt seen any indication that malfeasance
or impaired mariners contributed to the accident.
Matt Woodruff, director of government affairs for parent
Kirby Corp., declined to comment on the recordings, radar
data or the investigation, saying the companys only
focus right now is on the cleanup. There was no answer to
phone calls made over the past two weeks at numbers listed
for Cleopatra in Pireas, Greece, and London.
Transcripts of the recordings tell a tale of realization that
dawned too late.
Fog was beginning to clear, leaving visibility of about a
mile, according to the recordings. Seven to 10 nautical miles
is considered optimum visibility, or line of sight, according
to George Fowler, another Vessel Traffic Service official.
Theres no speed limit through the channel, he said in a
March 31 interview. Nerheim said 12 knots is not unusual for
a bulk carrier passing through the channel and barges being
towed often travel at 4 or 5 knots.
Alright, well s---, Im glad I called you,
man, a person that Nerheim identified as the Miss
Susans watch officer said. The Miss Susan then asked
the Summer Wind if it could slow down.
Captain, I can cut it back, said the Summer
Winds pilot, who wasnt identified in the
information obtained from the FOIA request and whom Nerheim
declined to name. I can put it down to a dead slow, but
that still aint gonna stop because Im coming up
on a half mile on you.
Radar data shows the Summer Wind increased its speed to 12.4
The Miss Susan then attempted to make a hard turn to avoid a
crash. As the two vessels inched closer, the Summer Wind
suggested the Miss Susan hit reverse.
You might want to stop and back it, the Summer
Wind pilot said. I dont know what to tell you
because, man, its close.
The two vessels collided at about 12:35 p.m., causing the
barge the Miss Susan was towing to spill fuel oil,
restricting fishing in Galveston Bay and threatening bird
sanctuaries at the start of the spring migration and nesting
The wreck occurred at the Texas City Y, where the
Intracoastal Waterway and shipping lanes from Houston and
Texas City all intersect with the channel to the Gulf of
The accident wont slow the $35 billion in expansion project
s along the waterway that
will add oil refining
capacity and create
265,800 jobs, said Michelle Hundley, spokeswoman for the
Economic Alliance Houston Port Region.
Companies are expanding to capitalize on the low cost of US
energy. West Texas Intermediate crude cost $101.29/bbl at
10:15 a.m., compared with $106.90 for Europe
an Brent. Propane in the US
is about 43 cents/gal cheaper than in Europe
The Ship Channel is home to the largest petrochemical
complex in the US.
On an average day last year there were 38 tankers, 22
freighters, one cruise ship, 345 tows, six public vessels,
297 ferries and 25 other transits, with 75 ships in port,
Coast Guard data show.
The Coast Guard hasnt yet released an official cause.
Channelview, Texas-based Kirby Inland Marine, the owner of
Miss Susan, is responsible for the cleanup because its barge
was the source of the oil that spilled.
At the time of the collision, Cleopatra, Summer Winds
operator, was on probation for a federal criminal pollution
violation. It pleaded guilty in September 2012 to violating
the Act to Prevent Pollution from Ships and was ordered to
pay a $300,000 fine and serve a three-year probation term
requiring implementation of an environment
al compliance program,
according to federal prosecutors in Baton Rouge, Louisiana,
and court records filed in the case.
The company admitted that in August 2011, the Stellar Wind,
an oceangoing bulk carrier traveling from Spain to the US,
discharged bilge water and other oily waste without using an
oily water separator as required by federal and international
law. The chief engineer didnt record the illegal
discharges as required and made false entries indicating that
the separator was used, according to the plea agreement.
Conditions of the probation included no further violations of
federal, state or local laws and the funding of the
compliance program. John Musser, the New Orleans attorney
listed as representing Cleopatra in the case, didnt
return calls for comment.
Recent inspections of the Summer Wind recorded multiple
deficiencies, according to records from Equasis, the Europe
an Unions vessel
database. Last year, authorities in Neapolis, Greece, noted
deficiencies in the Summer Winds lifeboats, emergency
lighting, fire-fighting equipment and instruction manual.
The Coast Guard inspected the Summer Wind shortly after the
collision on March 22, Petty Officer Stephen Lehmann said in
an interview April 2. The inspection found problems with the
ships load lines and navigational equipment, according
to records from Equasis.