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U.S. Department of Transportation U.S. Department of Transportation Icon United States Department of Transportation United States Department of Transportation

MV OKALOOSA

For actions taken on December 19, 1979: 

Citation is currently missing.

Walker Marine in Pascagoula, Mississippi, built the M/V Okaloosa in 1974, for the Sela Towing Company. The 68-foot-long, 107-ton towboat worked the Mississippi River in and around New Orleans pushing barges and berthing large vessels. On the evening of December 19, 1979, Captain Felix Dean was at the helm of Okaloosa. It was a normal evening until the Liberian-flagged tankship M/V Pina collided with the tug Mr. Pete and caught fire just west of the Seventh Street Wharf in New Orleans, Louisiana. Okaloosa responded and assisted in the rescue.

Pina was a 698-foot-long bulk oil tanker with a 39-foot draft and a weight of 55,605 deadweight tons. On December 19, it carried 60,000 barrels of crude oil for discharge at Good Hope Refinery in Norco, Louisiana. Pina began the evening at Bell Chase, Louisiana and proceeded under pilotage. Near New Orleans’s Seventh Street Wharf, the river pilot operating Pina spotted an incoming vessel that appeared to be a tug crossing the river - a normal sight every evening. The tug was Mr. Pete, and it was not what it appeared.

That evening, Mr. Pete pushed two barges in tandem downriver and navigated in a highly irregular fashion under the control of an unlicensed operator. Barge ACBL2666 carried paper for landing at the Poydras Street Wharf. ACBL1742 was filled with refined coal fuel and set to be moored at the Chalmette Street Slip. The two barges measured 195-feet in length, 35-feet across and weighed 879 tons each. They featured barely visible homemade signal lights consisting of a six-volt battery attached to a flashlight bulb with a colored plastic lens. As the two barges came closer and closer it dawned on Pina’s pilot that something was amiss. The running lights on Mr. Pete seemed to zig and zag across the river. The operator on Mr. Pete further complicated matters because he intended to pass Pina on starboard, instead of the standard port side. Pina attempted to reach Mr. Pete, but was unsuccessful because the tug’s operator was tuned to a different radio channel.

At 2257, the master and pilot on Pina spotted the outline of the barges. The pilot realized his error and tried to evade but failed. The first barge collided with Pina, penetrating the port bow and tearing a 65-foot-long gash deep enough to rupture the bulkhead and a pipe containing slop oil. The collision ignited the oil rushing into the river. Flames shot from one bank of the Mississippi to the other and climbed up the deck of the Pina and along the port bow. On deck the fire ignited a paint storage locker filled with 6,000 gallons of flammable tank-cleaning products, causing it to explode. Smoke filled the deck house making it impossible to operate Pina. Both Pina and a nearby vessel immediately radioed for fireboats.

Pina became a flaming hazard on the crowded Mississippi River. It crashed into a grain barge and drifted perpendicular to the river bank. Pina’s pilot feared crashing into a shore-based fuel terminal and causing a conflagration in the middle of New Orleans. The tugs Captain Ed and James E. Smith, were the first to respond to radio signals for help from Pina. They were followed by the tugs Bonnie Palmer, Okaloosa, and Kyle Smith. Captain Ed and James E. Smith cut through a sea of flaming oil to reach Pina. The two tugs coordinated efforts and positioned Pina against the Napoleon Avenue Wharf, Section B, where shore based firefighters stood ready to fight the flames. Pina’s crew attempted to fight the fire onboard, but abandoned ship when the flames reached the deckhouse. The crew proceeded to the starboard lifeboat and were immediately recovered by the tug Point Clear. The pilot from Pina boarded another towboat to coordinate efforts to hold Pina against the wharf. He and two other men boarded Pina from the Napoleon Avenue Wharf in hopes of securing a mooring line, but firefighters ordered them off the ship after a series of explosions in the ship’s bow. It took another four hours to extinguish the flames while Bonnie Palmer, Captain Ed, James E. Smith, Okaloosa, and Kyle Smith held the vessel in position.

Okaloosa, Captain Ed, James E. Smith, Bonnie Palmer, and Kyle Smith received Gallant Ship awards for assistance rendered to Pina and City of New Orleans. Were it not for the fast action of the captains and crews, Pina may have suffered further collisions and endangered lives and property. All five captains received the Merchant Marine Meritorious Service Medal. Letters of commendation were issued to all crewmembers on the tugs.

Sela Towing merged with Plimsoll Marine Inc. in 1986, and Okaloosa continues to be part of the Plimsoll Marine fleet operating in and around New Orleans.
 

 
Last updated: Tuesday, August 3, 2021