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Revisiting the Cahaba Towboat Incident 25 Years Later—A Case Study

Although over 25 years have passed since the Merchant/Motor Vessel (M/V) Cahaba towboat somersaulted under Rooster Bridge on the Tomigbee River, interest in this incident continues to stand at an all-time high. Photographs chronicling the events of that fateful day in late April 1979 permeate the Internet, and “Cahaba towboat” continues to be one of the most popular Internet searches today.

We revisit the Cahaba towboat incident in the following account, which is based on information from several online resources and personal reports. Many call the captain’s and crew members’ survival a miracle, but in fact, a full fuel tank and cement ballasts played the greatest part in rescuing the Cahaba.

Members of the ASSE Transportation Practice Specialty have inquired about this incident, and interest in maritime transportation safety issues continues to grow. The Transportation Practice Specialty leadership believes that this is a good case study for review, and even after 25 years, there are still lessons to be learned from the Cahaba towboat incident.

Overview of the Cahaba Towboat Incident

In late April 1979, M/V Cahaba, an 80-foot, 1,800-horsepower towboat with twin diesel engines, released two barges on the Tomigbee River in western Alabama as it approached Rooster Bridge (a drawbridge on Route 80). According to Professional Mariner journal, it is a common nautical practice to release barges under a bridge near the shore and then to “throttle the towboat full-steam astern, bring the boat through the open drawbridge and catch up with the barges downstream” (Professional Mariner, #64, June/July 2002). The Cahaba’s captain, Jimmy Wilkerson, intended to do just that—as the towboat approached the non-lifting east span of the bridge, he planned to run the towboat through the lifting west span and then meet up with the barges downstream.

Pilot Earl Barnhart and two deckhands were slated to cast off the safety and winch wires, but the deckhands could not properly detach the starboard tow-knee wire that connected the towboat to the barge that contained coal. Instead of passing through the drawbridge, the Cahaba collided with the bridge and turned sideways.

Captain Wilkerson reversed as much as possible to avoid this collision, but he underestimated the current’s strength. Heavy rains that spring happened to raise the Tomigbee to record levels and made for a swift current. This high water left only about 11 feet of clearance under the bridge, and the Cahaba, at 37 feet high, could not pass under it. Instead, the towboat rolled underwater while the current pulled it under the bridge.

The Cahaba then passed beneath the bridge, completely submerged, before partially righting itself after clearing it. Once the tow-knee wire broke, the Cahaba resurfaced right-side-up on the downstream side of the bridge. Amazingly, Captain Wilkerson remained at the helm throughout the incident, and the Cahaba’s starboard engine ran the entire time.

M/V Cathy Parker’s crew witnessed the incident while it waited to pass through Rooster Bridge and radioed the M/V Tallapoosa, another vessel nearby on the Tomigbee, to help the Cahaba. The Tallapoosa’s captain tied off its tow and then reached the Cahaba to push it into a flooded cornfield. The Tallapoosa helped to secure the loose barges and confirmed that the Cahaba’s captain and crew were safe and accounted for.

So just how did the Cahaba manage to survive this ordeal? Before it approached Rooster Bridge, the Cahaba filled its one central fuel tank 14 miles upstream in Demopolis, Alabama. Thanks to its full fuel tank, the Cahaba’s weight did not shift as it rolled over. Also, the Cahaba’s operator, Warrior and Gulf Navigation Company, ballasted the towboat with three to four feet of cement in the bottom. The combination of the full fuel tank and the cement ballasts is what helped the Cahaba to right itself.

In the early 1980s, Rooster Bridge was removed and replaced by a new bridge further up the Tomigbee River. On June 11, 1999, Madison Coal & Supply purchased the Cahaba and has since refurbished and renamed it.

Lessons Learned

The Cahaba towboat incident most clearly illustrates the importance of conducting a risk assessment before all maritime operations. Safety, health and environmental (SH&E) professionals working in the transportation/maritime industry have taken the position that a risk assessment is required for such operations. Transportation SH&E professionals have expressed the view that a risk assessment could have identified the potential that deckhands might not correctly release the safety and winch wires.

Additional observations include the following:

  • Planning and training for the movement of barges and maritime materials should address the hazards and concerns involved with bridges, channels and other water obstacles
  • The proper training of deckhands is essential
  • Never underestimate the strength of currents
  • Understand the safety factors of winch wire and rope in relation to the load that is towed
  • Allow a wide berth for towboats and barges
  • Avoid boating near bridges when water levels are high

Websites Cited and Consulted

Canfield, Clarke. “Old Photos of Towboat Hitting Bridge Became an Internet Sensation.” Professional Mariner, #64, June/July 2002.

Law Offices of Byron Countryman and Michael McDaniel, http://www.cargolaw.com/2002nightmare_towboat.html

Little River Books, http://www.littleriverbooks.com/cahaba.htm

Marine-Movers Boat Transport, http://www.marine-mover.som/TowboatPhotos.html

Snopes, http://www.snopes.com

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