Good afternoon and welcome to the Boardroom of the National Transportation Safety Board. I am Christopher Hart, and it is my privilege to serve as Chairman of the NTSB. Joining me are Vice Chairman Bella Dinh-Zarr, Member Robert Sumwalt, and Member Earl Weener.
Today, we meet in open session, as required by the Government in the Sunshine Act, to consider the collision of the bulk carrier Conti Peridot with the chemical tanker Carla Maersk on March 9, 2015, in the Houston Ship Channel.
More than 88,000 gallons of a hazardous material known as methyl tert-butyl ether, or MTBE, were released from the Carla Maersk; the two ships sustained a total of about $8.2 million in damage. Thankfully, no members of either crew were injured in the collision.
Houston’s port is one of the busiest in the world. Vessels of all shapes and sizes must successfully share the waters of the Houston Ship Channel. They range from small sport watercraft and fishing boats to deep-draft ships loaded with cruise passengers, bulk freight, vehicles, and in some cases hazardous materials such as petrochemical products that are integral to the economy of the U.S. and the world.
It is vitally important that all of these diverse vessels, large and small, be able to navigate this narrow channel safely.
Large, deep-draft vessels are most constrained because they can transit only within the deepest portion of the channel, and the deepest portion of the channel leaves little room for error when two of these large ships are passing each other. To do so, they take on specialists called pilots. These seasoned local mariners are intimately familiar with the characteristics of the channel. They board larger vessels, both inbound and outbound, and guide them into and out of the port.
On the day of the accident, the Conti Peridot, a bulk carrier, was inbound from Mexico, carrying a load of steel coils. The Carla Maersk, a chemical tanker, was outbound from Houston, carrying nine million gallons of MTBE. Both vessels were being guided by pilots, who boarded while visibility was good. However, a dense fog soon rolled in – dense enough, in fact, that at times the pilot on the bridge of the Conti Peridot could barely see the ship’s bow only 400 feet away.
Because of this developing navigational hazard, as the Conti Peridot proceeded inbound and the Carla Maersk proceeded outbound, the Houston Pilots Association suspended boardings of inbound deep draft vessels. But for ships already underway, it was up to individual pilots to decide whether and how to continue – and if they did, to communicate with one another to prevent collisions.
In the thick fog, the pilot of the Conti Peridot lost the use of visual cues on which pilots rely. Just after meeting and passing the first of a line of outbound ships, he began to lose control of the vessel. His difficulty continued and intensified as he met ship after ship in the narrow channel.
However, he never discussed this difficulty with the Conti Peridot’s master or other bridge crew.
During interviews after the accident, the pilot himself emphasized the importance of visibility. Yet he continued his inbound progress in the dense fog.
The Conti Peridot’s pilot also did not radio other pilots about the difficulty he was experiencing until they were in close proximity. One minute before meeting the Carla Maersk, for example, the Conti Peridot’s pilot radioed “Try to miss me, coming across the channel.”
But it was too late. At 12:30 pm the bow of the Conti Peridot struck the Carla Maersk just forward of midship.
This collision is the fifth accident that the NTSB has investigated since 2011 involving large vessels in or near the Houston Ship Channel. As I have mentioned, it is a narrow channel. It is prone to rapidly developing fog, particularly in the spring and fall, as happened on the day of the collision. When that occurs, communication between pilots is of paramount importance to maintaining safe navigation.
Anywhere in marine transportation, bridge resource management – that is, optimal coordination of tasks by bridge crew members – can make the difference between a safe operation and an accident. This is particularly true of a narrow, congested area such as the Houston Ship Channel.
Today’s presentations will focus on bridge resource management, pilot communications, U.S. Coast Guard vessel traffic services, and the ship-movement strategies and navigation in the Houston Ship Channel when visibility is limited.
It is our hope that lessons learned from this accident can help to prevent future collisions.
Now Managing Director Zoeller will introduce the staff.