NEW ORLEANS (AP) _ The pilot of the Mississippi Queen was at fault when the paddlewheeler collided with a string of barges last December, the National Transportation Safety Board has ruled.

The nighttime collision in a bend of the Mississippi River occurred when the steamboat pilot moved to overtake the barges instead of slowing down and waiting for the tow to make its turn, the board said Wednesday.

The report said that the pilot behind the wheel was a trainee, whose identity was not revealed. His supervisor was Capt. Ruben Williams, who died last month in a traffic accident.

The Dec. 12 accident ripped a gash several feet long in the hull of the world's largest riverboat and grounded the 4,500-ton paddlewheeler on a sandbar near Gonzales, 50 miles upriver from New Orleans. All the passengers were evacuated safely.

The towboat was not severely damaged in the accident.

The Coast Guard is continuing to look into the collision and is expected to release its findings in a month or two, a Coast Guard spokesman said.

Patrick Fahey, executive vice president of the Delta Queen Steamship Co., which owns the Mississippi Queen, questioned the board's findings and said he believes the pilot of the tugboat Crimson Glory, which was pushing the 28- barge tow, was at fault.

Just before the collision, he said, the tugboat pilot suggested by radio that the Mississippi Queen pass him. It was only then that the riverboat's pilot decided to overtake the tow, Fahey said.

There was no answer early today at the office of Agri-Trans Corp., which owns the Crimson Glory.