Hot water not new to tugboat firm; The company involved in the Queen Isabella Causeway collapse has a history of accidents

by John Tedesco
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All content (c) San Antonio Express-News

ROCKPORT — A tugboat company involved in the Queen Isabella Causeway’s deadly collapse has been tied to at least 60 maritime infractions in 10 years and was warned in 1998 to address alleged safety problems with its vessels, U.S. Coast Guard records show.

Accidents that include 30 groundings, 13 collisions and numerous other mishaps have been connected to tugboats owned or staffed by Brown Water Marine Service Inc., the company being scrutinized for the Sept. 15 collision with what was the longest bridge in Texas.

The Brown Water V tugboat was pushing four barges loaded with steel and phosphates around 2 a.m. when the flotilla struck the causeway, knocking out a support column.

Unsuspecting motorists, driving in the early morning hours on the only road connecting South Padre Island to the mainland at Port Isabel, plunged through a gaping hole in the bridge. Eight people died. Maritime accidents often are trademarks of the tricky work that defines the tugboat industry, which tends to operate near heavy boat traffic and in shallow waters.

Brown Water Marine Service has hauled barges for big-name companies — a sign of a dependable track record, industry observers say — and most of its accidents involved no injuries.

But the number of Coast Guard cases involving the Rockport-based company prompted a stern warning on July 1, 1998, from a top Coast Guard officer.

“I wish to express my deepest concern about the alarming number of accidents involving vessels owned or operated by Brown Water Marine Service,” wrote Capt. A.D. Guerrero in a letter to the company.

Now retired, Guerrero had been the commanding officer at the Coast Guard’s marine safety office in Corpus Christi.

In his letter, Guerrero cited 16 cases during five years in which he described Brown Water as the responsible party. Several of the accidents, Guerrero wrote, “posed grave danger to the marine environment” and threatened the safety of U.S. waterways.

Incidents included two capsized barges that Brown Water owned, which Guerrero said weren’t properly maintained, and the March 26, 1996, sinking of the tugboat Brown Gulf, which resulted in a spill of 1,100 gallons of diesel fuel into the waters near the company’s dock.

“That one organization would suffer numerous and serious (incidents) among their vessels may be indicative of a disregard for maintenance standards and good marine practice,” wrote Guerrero, who urged the company to take corrective action immediately.

Company officials declined to comment on Brown Water’s past safety issues or the Sept. 15 causeway accident, which was one of the worst in the history of the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway.

Will Pierson, an attorney for the tugboat company, defended the safety standards of Brown Water Marine Service and its associated companies.

In particular, Pierson addressed the history of the Brown Water V.

Before the barges it was pushing rammed the causeway, the 84-ton tugboat had suffered two collisions, two groundings and past engine damage from flooding. All the cases occurred last year.

“We’re not saying the vessel hasn’t been invo lved in other incidents,” Pierson said. “It’s a piece of equipment that’s out there and anybody who’s ever served in the maritime trade knows there’s the potential for incidents.”

Tugboats and barges are more likely to be involved in accidents than any other vessel, according to an August 1999 analysis of marine accident data compiled by researchers at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md.

Of 33,000 groundings and collisions that occurred on U.S. waterways between 1992 and 1998, tugboats and barges were involved nearly 65 percent of the time, according to the report.

The most common causes were human error followed by poor weather conditions and equipment failure, the study found.

“Most of the tugboats are dealing with very difficult maneuvering situations,” said Jennifer Kehl Waters, a professor at the Naval Academy and one of the authors of the report. “That’s why they’re there. The tugs are doing the hardest job.”

Tugboats and barges make up the bulk of commercial traffic on the nation’s hundreds of miles of inland waterways.

Hugh “Tim” Chapman, who has been in the maritime business most of his life, owns Brown Water Marine Service. One of his first jobs was with a tugboat company in Aransas Pass, and his former boss gave him a glowing review.

“I met him when he was in college,” said Roy Markwardt, who owned the now-defunct Seahorse Harbor Tugs Inc. “I liked the way he handled himself, so I hired him.”

The business was part of several Seahorse companies that had different functions. As vice president, Chapman was in charge of tugboats, crewboats, barges and a fleet of shrimp boats.

Chapman later would organize his own Brown Water companies much the same way, with different entities owning different vessels. While this business structure isn’t uncommon, maritime law experts say it might be used to limit legal liabilities in the event of a lawsuit.

Markwardt, who retired and closed his companies, said Chapman was an efficient manager who emphasized safety.

“He works all the time and he runs a real tight operation,” Markwardt said.

“He knows the business and tries to keep his equipment in good shape.”

In the late 1980s, as the Seahorse companies were dismantled, Chapman bought some tugboats from Markwardt and opened shop in Rockport’s Cove Harbor, a low-frills collection of bait stands and marine businesses.

The small office of Brown Water Marine Service, with its wood paneling and an old couch for visitors, is short on style. But Chapman’s customers include big companies such as American Commercial Barge Line, which boasts a fleet of more than 5,000 barges.

“They’ve been with some pretty good employers for a pretty good length of time,” said Raymond Butler, executive director of the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway Association. “You don’t do that without some kind of record behind you.”

Brown Water Marine Service opened in 1989 and grew to 85 employees, making it one of the larger companies in the fishing haven of Rockport, population 7,385.

“They contribute to a lot of our events,” said Diane Probst, president and CEO of the local Chamber of Commerce. “In fact, we just had a golf tournament and they contributed toward it.”

The Brown Water operation depends on the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway, a federally subsidized, 1,100-mile channel that stretches from Brownsville to St. Marks, Fla.

Cove Harbor is situated near the maritime highway, which handled 110 million tons of freight transported by barge in 1999.

Barrier islands shelter the waterway, but tugboat pilots still can have their hands full.

“It’s a stressful job,” said James Calhoun, a tugboat captain who recently worked for Brown Water. “You got the weather to deal with. It kind of messes with you from time to time. You got to watch your currents, your tides, your wind.”

Calhoun was the captain of the Brown Water VII, which was pushing an empty barge up the Intracoastal Waterway north of Brownsville around midnight June 16, 1999, when it hit three fishing cabins near the channel, according to court records.

Two fishermen, who claimed to be injured in the accident, later sued Brown Water. Calhoun declined to comment on the incident.

Brown Water tugboats have been involved in numerous groundings, collisions and at least one sinking that involved the tugboat Brown Gulf. According to the Coast Guard, that accident was caused by the removal of a hose from a sump pump, which resulted in the boat’s flooding.

On Feb. 24, 1998, a barge owned by a Brown Water company partly flooded, causing two deck tanks containing drilling mud, a kind of lubricant for oil and natural gas wells, to fall overboard. Coast Guard officials later found “structural deficiencies” with the barge.

On April 10, 1997, a Brown Water barge capsized in the wake of a ship in the Houston Ship Channel and six tanks carrying zinc bromide sank.

A 1993 Coast Guard citation for another tug, the Brown Water VI, alleged a broad maintenance problem with the entire Brown Water fleet.

In that citation, a Coast Guard inspector recommended a penalty “due to the overall lack of maintenance on all of the vessels and barges that belong to owner. Most of these are incidents waiting to happen.”

Brown Water Marine Service had recently joined American Waterways Operators, an Arlington, Va., group of barge and tugboat operators that requires safety audits for all members.

Conducted by third-party consultants, the audits examine a company’s management policies, equipment and crew.

But as a new member in the industry group, Brown Water Marine Service hadn’t yet carried out the safety requirement, said Anne Burns, a spokeswoman for the association.

American Waterways Operators gives new members two years to conduct the safety audit.

The Coast Guard has scheduled a public hearing Tuesday to examine the events surrounding the causeway accident.

Lawyers for Brown Water Marine Service and the business that owns the tugboat involved, Brown Water Towing I, blame the Sept. 15 accident on a sandbar in the channel, which last was dredged by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in June.

Faulty navigation lights, which are supposed to be tended by the Texas Department of Transportation, weren’t working, lawyers claim.

And when part of the bridge collapsed, some witnesses say dimmed streetlights failed to alert motorists as they drove through the dark into the chasm.

“I would say there’s a lot of people who have explaining to do all the way from the United States Coast Guard, the Army Corps of Engineers, the Texas Department of Transportation, all the way down through our company,” said Pierson, a Corpus Christi lawyer whose firm has represented the Brown Water company for years.

Officials dispute the company’s claims.

The Army Corps of Engineers said it conducted an underwater survey the day after the accident and found no signs of shoaling, a buildup of silt or sand.

The Gulf Intracoastal Waterway Association, a group that keeps track of navigation hazards on the channel to warn mariners, said it has no record of a sandbar in that area.

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