NTSB critical of relief captain in fatal tugboat accident

HOUSTON – A probable cause report by the National Transportation Safety Board is critical of the actions of a relief captain who was aboard a tugboat when it capsized and sank in the San Jacinto River in April of last year.

The day before the accident, the Houston and surrounding areas were inundated by heavy rains causing, the NTSB noted, the river to rise 5 feet above flood stage and have a stronger than normal current.

Details: Body found in San Jacinto River after tugboat flips

On April 19, the Ricky J Leboeuf was on the river with a crew of five preparing to tow a pair of barges to Beaumont. NTSB investigators wrote the U.S. Coast Guard and the company operating the vessel at the time, D&S Marine Service, warned captains about performing certain maneuvers in these conditions.

One of those maneuvers is called, "downstreaming." The NTSB wrote this happens when a vessel goes upstream and allows the current to push it downstream to connect with another vessel.

Federal investigators wrote the tug boat's relief captain was performing this maneuver when a strong current caused the Ricky J Leboeuf to pivot, bump a barge, capsize and sink. The entire accident was captured by a nearby surveillance camera.

Four of the crew members survived. A deckhand from Alabama, Joshua Brazeal, drowned. His body was discovered the following day.

NTSB investigators noted the relief captain, who was not identified in the report, "decided to attempt the maneuver despite the risks and without consulting the vessel's captain or the company port captain, as required by company policy."

File: NTSB full report

Federal investigators wrote at the time of the accident, the captain and senior tankerman were sleeping in their staterooms.

The report further stated the relief captain's "decision was ill-advised and resulted in the death of a crew member."

NTSB investigators wrote the relief captain refused to be interviewed by them or the US Coast Guard.

Officials with the Coast Guard told KPRC their investigation is not yet complete. Officials with D&S have not yet returned KPRC's call seeking comment.