By the time the ships' pilots realised they were on a crash course, it was too late.
The fog was just beginning to lift on the Houston Ship Channel at midday on March 22 as a bulk carrier and a fuel barge found themselves three-quarters of a mile apart. For five minutes, they exchanged radio messages as they tried slowing down, speeding up and reversing while nearing a collision that closed one of the world's busiest waterways for three days, according to U.S. Coast Guard recordings and radar data obtained by Bloomberg under the Freedom of Information Act.
"I can put it down to a dead slow, but that still ain't gonna stop," the freighter's pilot said, according to the recordings.
The crash caused 4,000 barrels of fuel oil to spill and disrupted about $1.5 billion in commerce in the U.S.'s largest export gateway. As authorities work to determine the cause and clean up the mess, the incident is highlighting the fragility of a critical bottleneck in the country's energy network. About 400 vessels pass each day through the 52-mile long channel where the crash occurred.
The Summer Wind, a 585-foot Liberian-flagged vessel operated by Cleopatra Shipping Agency, was traveling at 12 knots, and the Miss Susan, a Kirby Inland Marine tug that was towing a barge carrying fuel oil, at 4 knots, when the crew members started communicating at about 12:30 p.m., five minutes before the collision, the recordings and radar data show.
Investigators are looking into "all the factors that give pilots wrinkles around the eyes," including speed, navigation decisions, visibility and weather, Steven Nerheim, director of the Coast Guard's Vessel Traffic Service for Houston-Galveston, said in an interview on March 31. He said he hasn't seen any indication that "malfeasance" or "impaired mariners" contributed to the accident.
Matt Woodruff, director of government affairs for parent Kirby, declined to comment on the recordings, radar data or the investigation, saying the company's only focus right now is on the cleanup. There was no answer to phone calls made over the past two weeks at numbers listed for Cleopatra in Pireas, Greece, and London.
Transcripts of the recordings tell a tale of realisation that dawned too late.
Fog was beginning to clear, leaving visibility of about a mile, according to the recordings. Seven to 10 nautical miles is considered optimum visibility, or line of sight, according to George Fowler, another Vessel Traffic Service official. There's no speed limit through the channel, he said in a March 31 interview. Nerheim said 12 knots is not unusual for a bulk carrier passing through the channel and barges being towed often travel at 4 or 5 knots.
"All right, well s---, I'm glad I called you, man," a person that Nerheim identified as the Miss Susan's watch officer said. The Miss Susan then asked the Summer Wind if it could slow down.
"Captain, I can cut it back," said the Summer Wind's pilot, who wasn't identified in the information obtained from the FOIA request and whom Nerheim declined to name. "I can put it down to a dead slow, but that still ain't gonna stop because I'm coming up on a half mile on you."
Radar data shows the Summer Wind increased its speed to 12.4 knots.
The Miss Susan then attempted to make a hard turn to avoid a crash. As the two vessels inched closer, the Summer Wind suggested the Miss Susan hit reverse.
"You might want to stop and back it," the Summer Wind pilot said. "I don't know what to tell you because, man, it's close."
The two vessels collided at about 12:35 p.m., causing the barge the Miss Susan was towing to spill fuel oil, restricting fishing in Galveston Bay and threatening bird sanctuaries at the start of the spring migration and nesting season.
The wreck occurred at the Texas City Y, where the Intracoastal Waterway and shipping lanes from Houston and Texas City all intersect with the channel to the Gulf of Mexico.
The accident won't slow the $35 billion in expansion projects along the waterway that will add oil refining capacity and create 265,800 jobs, said Michelle Hundley, spokeswoman for the Economic Alliance Houston Port Region.
Companies are expanding to capitalise on the low cost of U.S. energy. West Texas Intermediate crude cost $101.29 a barrel at 10:15 a.m., compared with $106.90 for European Brent. Propane in the U.S. is about 43 cents a gallon cheaper than in Europe.
The Ship Channel is home to the largest petrochemical complex in the U.S. On an average day last year there were 38 tankers, 22 freighters, one cruise ship, 345 tows, six public vessels, 297 ferries and 25 other transits, with 75 ships in port, Coast Guard data show.
The Coast Guard hasn't yet released an official cause. Channelview, Texas-based Kirby Inland Marine, the owner of Miss Susan, is responsible for the cleanup because its barge was the source of the oil that spilled.
At the time of the collision, Cleopatra, Summer Wind's operator, was on probation for a federal criminal pollution violation. It pleaded guilty in September 2012 to violating the Act to Prevent Pollution from Ships and was ordered to pay a $300,000 fine and serve a three-year probation term requiring implementation of an environmental compliance program, according to federal prosecutors in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and court records filed in the case.
The company admitted that in August 2011, the Stellar Wind, an oceangoing bulk carrier traveling from Spain to the U.S., discharged bilge water and other oily waste without using an oily water separator as required by federal and international law. The chief engineer didn't record the illegal discharges as required and made false entries indicating that the separator was used, according to the plea agreement.
Conditions of the probation included no further violations of federal, state or local laws and the funding of the compliance program. John Musser, the New Orleans attorney listed as representing Cleopatra in the case, didn't return calls for comment.
Recent inspections of the Summer Wind recorded multiple deficiencies, according to records from Equasis, the European Union's vessel database. Last year, authorities in Neapolis, Greece, noted deficiencies in the Summer Wind's lifeboats, emergency lighting, fire-fighting equipment and instruction manual.
The Coast Guard inspected the Summer Wind shortly after the collision on March 22, Petty Officer Stephen Lehmann said in an interview April 2. The inspection found problems with the ship's load lines and navigational equipment, according to records from Equasis.