Feds investigate safety in harbor

November 3, 2018 GMT

STAMFORD — A federal agency has joined the Coast Guard in investigating a Stamford Harbor accident in which a drifting barge smashed a $1.5 million yacht.

The National Transportation Safety Board “has come to the conclusion that there may be wider safety implications around this incident, and they are undertaking a full investigation,” Capt. Eric Knott, Stamford’s state-appointed harbormaster, has told elected officials.

In the Sept. 17 accident, a tug boat lost control of one of two barges loaded with sand and gravel that were being towed to an O&G Industries dock in the harbor. The barge struck the Sea Jay, a custom-built catamaran docked at the city’s new boatyard, where it was being prepared for a yearlong trip through the Panama Canal and across the Pacific Ocean to the French Polynesian islands.

The Sea Jay is a total loss, Knott said.

“The NTSB is by federal law empowered to investigate if they consider there might be public safety implications beyond the immediate cause of the accident, which appears to be one boat bumping into the other,” Knott told members of the Board of Representatives’ Parks and Recreation Committee at their October meeting.

“So at the moment, we have two parallel federal-level investigations being undertaken into this accident,” Knott said. “The Coast Guard and the NTSB have both been in touch with me for various information, primarily because they know I predicted this would happen.”

Knott, along with members of the Stamford Harbor Management Commission, have said the new boatyard should not be built in the West Branch of the harbor. They advised the Zoning Board to reject the plan from developer Building and Land Technology, which in 2011 tore down the city’s original boatyard in violation of a zoning agreement and state environmental regulations.

Unlike the original boatyard, which was on a peninsula off Bateman Way, the new one off Southfield Avenue would be at a “choke point” in the narrow West Branch, increasingly busy with commercial and recreational traffic, they said at the time.

But the Zoning Board approved a plan, and the new boatyard, along with a storage facility on Magee Avenue, opened over the summer.

It’s not clear what the NTSB is evaluating, Knott said.

“We need to be careful about speculating,” he cautioned city representatives.

The accident happened when a tug boat pushed the barges, one in front of the other, until they reached O&G, where the lead one had to be turned around in order to dock. It got loose.

“It seems quite clear that the tug operator made an error in judgment,” Knott said.

The NTSB makes safety recommendations and has “no regulatory power to enforce anything,” Knott said. “But they can cause people a lot of embarrassment.”

The Coast Guard is lead investigator on the case, said Keith Holloway, media relations officer for the NTSB.

“If we have a determination on our end, we will issue it at the same time or after the Coast Guard,” Holloway said. “We usually take 12 to 18 months, so if the Coast Guard comes out earlier than that, we may not have a report ready yet.”

Coast Guard Lt. Rodion Mazin said the accident is still being investigated. The Coast Guard will share all findings with the NTSB, Mazin said.

Knott said the Coast Guard can “sanction any credentialed mariner” who may have been at fault.

Damian Ortelli, chairman of the harbor commission, said the NTSB’s “interest was piqued because they look into whether there is a larger public-safety concern. They came in because there may be a bigger thing here.”

The Sea Jay “was in the federal channel,” Ortelli said. “There’s supposed to be a 20-foot setback from the dock to the channel. But the catamaran was 26 feet wide, so it was sticking into the channel.”

News of the crash was not a surprise, Ortelli said.

“It was an ‘I told you so,’” he said. “I was surprised, though, that it didn’t even take a year for it to happen.”

The harbor is difficult because of its “Y” shape, he said. The channel is the stem, and it has two branches, East and West.

“The previous boatyard was where the Y divides. You’d come up the main channel and it was right there,” he said. “Now you have to go all the way up into the end, through a pinch point, with commercial and private facilities up and down both branches.”

There are 600 barge trips a year, Knott said.

“We get frequent bumps from tugs and barges,” he said. “It is not unknown for them to bump a dock.”

Knott said the city may at some point have to explain why it never required a navigational risk assessment before approving the new boatyard site.

“There is no law you have to have one, but if there is another incident, a lawyer could decide that the risk was so obvious that it should have been addressed,” Knott said. “It could make for civil litigation.”

If that were to happen, questions about the site are in the public record, Ortelli said.

“The harbor commission and harbormaster argued during meetings that, with close quarters and barge traffic coming through, it could be dangerous,” he said. “Now a federal agency may or may not conclude that this is an acceptable place for a boatyard. We’ll have to see where it goes.”

Knott agreed.

“Just because the NTSB has opened an investigation doesn’t mean they will carry it through until the end,” Knott said. “They may reach a point where they see no benefit in carrying on. It would be unwise to speculate.”

acarella@stamfordadvocate.com; 203-964-2296.