Semisub Set Adrift By Katrina Wreaks Havoc in Mobile


When Hurricane Katrina blew into Mobile Bay on Monday morning, the strong winds and large storm surge began wreaking havoc on the many ships, barges, and docks located along the shores of the Mobile River. According to Port Authorities, many barges lost their moorings and were carried up the Mobile River as the hurricane pushed inland.

However, the biggest problems were caused by PEMEX's PSS Chemul, a 13,000 ton semisubmersible accomodation unit that was under renovation at the Bender Shipbuilding Yard Nine. The high waters of the storm surge apparently carried the platform off of the leased barge, the Mobile Heavy Lifter, that was being used as its dry dock.

Bender had won the contract from PEMEX to repair and refurbish the semi in November 2004. The contract included steel and pipe repair in the vessel's hulls and columns, painting of the vessel, power generation replacement and repair, and the upgrade and the installation of alarm, monitoring and control systems. Additionally, Bender was to remove the existing accommodation and office units and install 36 new personnel accommodation units and 7 new office units, remove the existing 150-ton crane and the install a new one, and refurbish the existing permanent 300-man accommodation facility.

All in all, Bender expected to employ as many as 350 people working on the PSS Chemul. The renovation work was expected to take about 8 months to complete, so the vessel was nearing completion before Katrina hit.

According to the Mobile Register, the Chemul was carried away from the shipyard and up the Mobile River where it first crashed into the Alabama State Port Authority's Bulk Material Handling Plant. Docks Director Jimmy Lyons indicated that the Chemul completely destroyed a $4 million barge loader, while potentially causing other significant damage to the dock and pilings as it careened up the river.

Tug boats tried to corral the floating behemoth, but were thwarted by high winds and waves that prevented them from controlling it. The Cost Guard also monitored the Chemul, but was unable to provide assistance due to the high winds.

Around 11:00 am, the semisub crashed into the Cochrane-Africatown USA Bridge that crosses over the Mobile River, providing the only hazardous cargo route through the area. The 140-foot tall bridge was completed in 1991 at a cost of $70 million.

Around 5:00 pm, as the storm surge began to subside, the vessel was able to drift free from where it had been pinned under the bridge. According to witnesses, much of the top-sides structures on the Chemul was destroyed or badly damaged.