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Mississippi River Towboat Operated as Though Someone “Had a Stroke”, Witness Testifies

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As the  Coast Guard hearing into this summers’ Mississippi River oil spill resumed yesterday, one witness testified that a towboat involved in the spill was being operated as if someone onboard “had had a stroke.”  Chance Gould, pilot of the Tintomara,  testified that the towboat Mel Oliver ignored whistles, warning lights and demands over the radio to back up.

“The way it looked to me, it looked like someone had had a stroke on the boat,” Gould said.

According to Gould, the Mel Oliver cut across the river in front of his tanker for no apparent reason, causing the Tintomara to run over the oil-laden barge the vessel was towing.  The barge split in half, spilling much of its cargo into the river. It is estimated that about 280,000 gallons of oil actually spilled into the Mississippi.

Gould’s version concurred with radio transmissions released by the Coast Guard in August that showed the Mel Oliver received repeated warnings from both Coast Guard personnel and  the Tintomara to get out of the way in the minutes leading up to the crash. Unfortunately, no one on the Mel Oliver ever responded to the warnings.

Lawyers for American Commercial Lines LLC, the owner of the Mel Oliver and the barge it was towing, questioned Gould, and suggested that he was in the wrong by failing to allow the towboat to cross the river.  But Gould stood his ground, saying that it is a towboat’s responsibility to communicate its intentions when it plans to cross the river in front of a ship.

The Coast Guard hearing is expected to last several more days.  Among the witness likely to be called is John Bavaret, pilot of the Mel Oliver.   Bavaret did not have the proper license to pilot a tugboat. Terry Carver, master license pilot of the Mel Oliver, should have been in charge of the vessel but was nowhere to be found when the accident occurred.

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