Investigating transportation accidents: Expect the unexpected

ISSN 2369-873X

17 December 2012
Posted by: Wendy Jolliffe

Despite planning and processes, TSB investigators need to think on their feet. This is especially true when deployed to a transportation accident site. Recently, I was sent to the grounded bulk carrier Sedna Desgagnés near Prescott, Ontario.

The vessel’s flap rudder stuck hard to port just moments after passing beneath the Prescott-Ogdensburg International Bridge. The 600-foot bulk carrier ran aground first in American waters, but then swung back into Canadian waters. A loud bang was heard, and the rudder moved freely from port to starboard and back again.

Arriving on the scene of a transportation accident

I arrived in Prescott, and the plan was simple: get on board the grounded vessel and download the data from the voyage data recorder (VDR) system. VDR data are invaluable to our investigation, giving us critical information about the accident such as:

  • the vessel's heading and speed;
  • radio communications;
  • radar imagery and use;
  • electronic navigation equipment settings and use; and
  • weather conditions.

Before I arrived, TSB investigators Luc Charbonneau and Pierre Giroux had already been aboard and done a lot of the ground work for the investigation. So I assumed that it would be an easy enough task to reach the vessel and carry out our only objective: download the data. My visit on board was anything but short.

Unfortunately, there was no water taxi available when we arrived. Our first obstacle thus became how to get out to the vessel itself. We visited the Coast Guard base in Prescott, but they were not able to transport us. They did, however, have technicians available to assist us with downloading information from the automatic information systems that were positioned alongshore.

We also sought assistance from Seaway Marine Transport, but they weren’t available. Finally, we were able to arrange transit through the owner of the Prescott Marina, but he would not be able to transport us back after dark. Since we estimated that the download would not take very long, we decided to go with the owner. He transported us to the vessel and returned to the marina, expecting that we would be contacting him in a few hours to be picked up from the vessel.

Sedna Desgagnés near Prescott, Ontario
Image of the Sedna Desgagnés near Prescott, Ontario

Getting on board the Sedna Desgagnés

It was noon when we finally boarded the Sedna Desgagnés and we immediately began work on downloading the VDR data using our specially-configured laptop. Unfortunately, we ran into a software error that we couldn’t resolve, despite spending several hours consulting both the VDR manufacturer in Germany and our internal IT specialists.

We decided to bring the VDR back to the TSB to continue our work. The owner’s representative on board preferred that we leave the VDR and instead proposed to hire technicians from Montreal, who could arrive in two hours to assist with the download. We agreed to wait.

The technicians were able to rectify the software issue and carried out the download. But because this process took several more hours, it was 11 pm by the time they finished. Our obstacle then became securing transport back to shore that night.

It was too late to arrange transport with the marina owner by that time, and the tug that had brought the technicians had already been sent away. The vessel’s owner’s representative called Seaway Marine Transport, but we weren’t able to return to shore until the following morning.

Spending the night on board the Sedna Desgagnés

Planning for this deployment to be a speedy one, we had not brought supplies (toiletries, extra clothes, etc.) to sleep overnight. I ended up sleeping on a settee (a couch in someone’s cabin) but managed to get a decent stretch of sleep. After a long night, we made it back to shore the next morning without incident. This experience is a good example of the challenges that can arise when deploying to a vessel. While we can plan in advance and bring the equipment that we think we’ll need, unexpected obstacles can arise in the process. As an investigator, we are often called upon to figure out on-the-go solutions.

Image of Wendy Jolliffe

With a Bachelor of Technology in Nautical Science and a Bachelor of Science in Human Biology and Biochemistry, Captain Jolliffe has 15 years of experience as a Rescue Specialist in the Canadian Coast Guard. In 2008, she joined the TSB as a Senior Marine Investigator. She is a bicycle commuter and a mother of four.

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