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Text messages are vital clues in investigation of tugboat sinking

A recent report from the National Transportation Safety Board provides insight into last year’s fatal tugboat sinking in the Hudson River. The tugboat Specialist collided into a construction barge near the Tappen Zee Bridge near Tarrytown, New York, in March 2016. The boat sank - and all three crewmembers on board were lost - before anyone could respond.

A new NTSB report concludes that the accident was most likely caused by fatigued crewmembers. How did investigators determine this? In this case, some of the biggest clues came from text messages between crew members and loved ones.

Investigators looked at text messages a deckhand sent to his girlfriend during the voyage and found evidence of extreme exhaustion, including:

  • Emphatic statements about how tired he was
  • A text at 7:30 p.m. saying he was going to sleep but had to be up for watch at midnight, after being awake 24 hours straight the previous day
  • A text saying he had slept for only two hours before being awoken to stand watch

The investigators also interviewed crew on neighboring boats who had observed the incident or assisted in the towing operation, as well as family members of the Specialist crew. Their observations supported the idea that the Specialist crew was extremely fatigued at the time of the accident.

Investigators concluded that crewmembers had probably not had more than four or five hours of continuous sleep during the three days before the accident. The exhaustion from insufficient sleep was compounded by challenging conditions, including bad weather, strong currents and poor visibility.

A big part of the problem, according to the report, was not having enough crewmembers on board. Under a normal watch schedule for tugboats in New York, each crewmember would work no more than 12 out of 24 hours.

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