Deckhand/Seaman suffers Maritime Injury at Lock and Dam 13, Mississippi River, Underscores Dangers of Transiting Locks, Too Much Strain on Barge Lines and Ropes

Transiting a Lock and Dam with tows of barges can be very dangerous. There must be coordinated action and good communication between the captain of the towboat, his deckhands and the lockmaster, in order to transit the lock and dam safely. However, in some instances, a barge line or rope is placed under too much strain because the captain fails to keep the tow under control and at a proper speed when entering the lock chamber. The captain or another superior may give the deckhand or seaman improper and dangerous instructions. Other times, lock personnel may operate equipment used to pull the barges out of the lock (known as a “rabbit”) and propels the barges too fast so that the deckhand has great difficulty stopping the barges on the lock or land wall without breaking the line. This can result in a maritime injury due to a barge accident.

A recent article in the Clinton Herald newspaper (Clinton, Iowa)  underscores the dangers posed to deckhands when a towboat is attempting to transit a lock and dam. The newspaper reported that a deckhand was injured on June 4, 2012, while transiting Lock and Dam 13 on the Mississippi River near Fulton, Illinois. The Lockmaster at Lock and Dam 13 confirmed that a 1½ inch barge line (rope) broke striking a deckhand in the head causing severe injuries, the article said. The deckhand was apparently evacuated for medical treatment.

Lock and Dam 13 was first opened in 1939 and is operated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Lock and Dam 13 is 522.5 miles above the confluence of the Mississippi and Ohio rivers with dimensions of 110 by 600 feet with additional provisions for an auxiliary lock. It takes approximately 10 minutes to fill or empty the lock chamber, according to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Before the lock chamber can be filled or emptied, the towboat and barges must enter the lock, the captain must slow the tow down in order for the deckhand to stop the barges and secure them to the lock wall with lines or ropes.

The line that failed at Lock and Dam 13 was likely either a hemp line or a synthetic rope called a “poly” line. Synthetic ropes are generally lighter than traditional hemp mooring lines. No matter the composition, when barge ropes or mooring lines are placed under too much strain, they can fail or “snap”. In short, lines and ropes all have a breaking point. The key is to stay clear of any line that is at or near its breaking point during a barge accident.

According to several of my clients who have been injured by a snapping barge line or rope, it sounds like a gun being discharged when the line actually breaks; and given the speed and force at which the line or rope is moving, anyone struck by it will feel like he was shot by a gun too.

Snapping barge lines have killed many deckhands and maimed countless others by amputating legs and arms. In other cases, a deckhand may be struck in the midsection and suffer internal injuries. For example, one of my clients was a newly hired deckhand – also known as a “greenhorn” or “green” deckhand – and had been incorrectly instructed to approach a timberhead to which a line was attached, but turned out was under strain. When the deckhand realized the line was about to break, he turned to run but the line snapped grazing his abdomen. The force of the impact opened a hole in his side as if cut by a surgeon’s scalpel. Fortunately, a fellow crewmember was able to push the deckhand’s innards back into his abdominal cavity and applied pressure to the wound until EMS personnel arrived. That crewmember probably saved my client’s life.

In all of these cases, the injuries to the deckhands were preventable had: (1) the towboat company instituted a thorough, rigorous training program for new deckhands; (2) required weekly safety meetings aboard the towboats; (3) the captain had maintained situational awareness (ie. knew the exact location of the deckhands/barges, during all stages of the lockage; or (4) the captain had not been in a hurry and properly navigated the tow of barges into the lock chamber, under control and at a proper speed.

In each case where we represented a deckhand injured by a snapping or breaking line, we filed lawsuits and were successful in recovering medical and hospital expenses and money for lost income, pain and suffering and disfigurement, because the towboat company and its officers failed to provide adequate training, a seaworthy vessel, competent and adequate crew and equipment (otherwise known as Jones Act negligence).

The unfortunate incident at Lock and Dam 13 on the Mississippi River on June 4th reminds of the importance of crewmember training, clear communication, and situation and navigation awareness by the captain of the towboat when entering or exiting a lock chamber. It also demonstrates that a failure on any of these levels can have serious and potentially life-threatening consequences. If you’ve experienced a similar incident, contact us about maritime injury.