TEXAS CITY — The bulk cargo ship that collided with a barge loaded with heavy fuel oil Saturday had problems with its navigational equipment, U.S. Coast Guard inspectors found.
The Summer Wind, operated by the Greek firm Cleopatra Shipping Agency Ltd., also had problems with its load lines, inspectors found.
Coast Guard inspectors found the violations during a post-incident inspection the day the vessels collided, The Daily News verified through maritime news organizations and shared Coast Guard records.
Coast Guard investigators declined to confirm the initial findings of the investigation.
In addition, a 2013 Greek inspection of the Summer Wind found deficiencies with the ship’s lifeboats, emergency lighting, firefighting equipment and onboard policy manuals.
Bloomberg News was the first to report the inspection findings.
While much of the attention during the spill response has been on the barge and tugboat owned by Kirby Inland Marine, officials have revealed little about the Summer Wind or Cleopatra Shipping.
Calls by The Daily News to Cleopatra’s offices in London went unanswered.
Collision at the ‘Y’
Lt. Derricka De Jean, the chief of investigations for the Coast Guard’s Marine Safety Unit in Texas City, said the Summer Wind was on its way to a Port of Houston dock when it collided with the barge that was under tow by the Kirby Inland Marine tugboat Miss Susan. The tugboat was moving two loaded barges from the Port of Texas City to the Intracoastal Waterway near the Bolivar Peninsula.
The vessels collided in heavy fog about 12:30 p.m. Saturday. At 12:35 p.m., the captain of the Summer Wind informed the Coast Guard of the collision.
Not long after, Kirby officials contacted Texas Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson and pledged to take responsibility for the costs, as required by law, the commissioner confirmed.
After the incident, the Summer Wind anchored near the Bolivar Roads as it was supposed to, officials said.
A pilot from the Houston Pilot’s Association was aboard the Summer Wind at the time of the collision, confirmed Henry de La Garza, the pilot association’s public information officer. The unidentified man is “a seasoned pilot,” de La Garza said.
A pilot is responsible for guiding large vessels through the area’s ship channels and to port. The Galveston-Texas City Pilots handle those duties for the Port of Texas City and Port of Galveston.
De Jean said the Summer Wind was not loaded with cargo as it moved through the Texas City “Y,” which is the intersection of the Houston Ship Channel, Texas City Ship Channel and Intracoastal Waterway.
Images of the damage indicate the barge was struck broadside on its starboard, or right, side by the Summer Wind, indicating it crossed in front of the cargo vessel.
De Jean said the details of how the two vessels collided, as well as what speed they were traveling, was to be determined by the ongoing investigation.
Fog on the water
Except for the crews of the two vessels involved, no one actually saw the collision. But many sure heard it.
Visibility on the waters off the tip of the Texas City Dike was less than a quarter-mile at about 12:30 p.m. Saturday when boaters and fishermen in Galveston Bay heard a loud boom. Some boaters reported visibility of less than 100 feet at the time of the collision.
“Within minutes, we started getting phone calls to 911 telling us about a collision in Galveston Bay,” Texas City Emergency Management Coordinator Bruce Clawson said. “From what we understood, it was further out in the bay than it actually was. I was surprised when the fog cleared to see how close to the dike it was.”
Clawson said he arrived on the dike within 15 minutes of the first reports and from the end of the dike he could not see the damaged barge, which by now was leaking thousands of gallons of heavy fuel oil.
“We had boaters coming in to the (Samson-Yarbrough) boat ramp telling us they didn’t see anything, but they did see the oil,” Clawson said. “It was all over the hulls of some of the boats.”
Investigators have not said whether low visibility because of the fog was a contributing factor in the collision.
Amount of oil
Initially, there were reports that only 2,000 gallons of fuel oil had leaked, County Judge Mark Henry said. Within an hour, that number was revised to 2,000 barrels — or 84,000 gallons.
Clawson initially was told it was 22,000 gallons, 523 barrels, which would not be considered a significant spill.
Eventually those estimates proved far off, and responding officials confirmed that about 4,000 barrels, or 168,000 gallons, had spilled from the damaged barge.
De Jean said all five members of her investigation team, with the assistance of the National Transportation Safety Board, are involved in examining the collision.
“It really goes beyond that,” she said. “Everyone in this office is involved in some way, and we have a lot of assistance from other (divisions of the Coast Guard).”
Peter Knudson, a public affairs officer with the NTSB, said the board has three investigators assisting the Coast Guard.
“They have certain areas of expertise that really assist us in our investigation,” De Jean said.
There is no timeline for when the investigation will be complete, De Jean said.
‘Responsible’ for spill
The collision resulted in more than 168,000 gallons, or about 3,800 barrels, of heavy fuel oil to spill into Galveston Bay.
The barge was carrying about 1 million gallons of the thick, sticky oil.
Because the oil barge belongs to Kirby, the company is tagged as the responsible party. That means, for now, Kirby is responsible for footing the bill.
The tag of responsible party does not mean the company is at fault, officials with the spill response’s unified command stressed. Under federal law, the company is responsible for all costs associated with the cleanup.
The investigation will eventually determine who is at fault and at that point, the costs of the response and claims from private individuals and businesses will be billed to those parties in what is expected to be a drawn-out process.
Under the law, shipping companies are required to have $10 million to $350 million of insurance to cover such instances.
Officials have yet to confirm the level of Kirby’s coverage.
While a federal lawsuit was filed earlier this week, a claims process will eventually determine how much money — if any — will be paid to those who filed damage claims.
Contact Mainland Editor T.J. Aulds at 409-683-5334 or firstname.lastname@example.org.