18 Sailors Trapped in Capsized Tugboat

By Kim Smiley

On Sunday March 23, a Ukrainian tug boat collided with a Chinese registered cargo ship.  The tug boat capsized and sunk in 115 feet of water, trapping 18 sailors inside the hull.  All 25 passengers on the cargo ship and seven passengers on the tugboat were rescued.  Experts believe the trapped sailors could still be alive if they were able to find air pockets inside the boat.  Unfortunately, no signal or sound coming from within the capsized ship has been detected during the 9 rescue attempts that have occurred so far.  Rescue efforts continue, but are hindered by low visibility and strong currents.

There is very little information currently available on how the collision happened. Even through the details are vague, it can be very useful to apply the root cause analysis method during this stage of an investigation.  Knowing some of the basic causes that have to be present for each type of incident can help direct the investigation efforts.  For example, if a fire occurs you already know that there was a spark, oxygen and fuel present and you can start the investigation by considering each of these causes.

In the case of the tugboat collision, there are number of causes that had to be present for the collision to occur and they could be used as starting places for the investigation.  Beyond the really basic, like there had to be two ships present, there are a few facts that can be assumed from the beginning.  First, there are strict rules of the road that govern the path of ships, especially near land, similar to the laws that govern vehicle traffic.  Somebody didn’t follow the rules and if you can figure out who didn’t and why that will go a long way to explaining why the ships collided.  Second, every ship should have situational awareness and avoid other ships (even if that other ship is doing something strange) and both ships failed to keep their distance from the other ship.  Either this was a failure to properly monitor position or the methods used were inadequate.   In this specific case, from the damaged that both ships sustained,  I’d also be willing to bet that somebody was going to fast too close to shore.

Each type of accident has fundamental causes that had to be present for it occur.  While many investigations lead far beyond the causes that can initially be assumed, they can be helpful place to start.  Performing a root cause analysis can help guide an investigation and ensure all the pertinent questions are asked and answered.