A roll-on, roll-off cargo ship carrying a space rocket booster destroyed one span of a Kentucky highway bridge when it followed a recreational-vessel channel with low clearance instead of transiting the center span of the bridge.
The roll-on, roll-off ship Delta Mariner sits in Kentucky Lake with twisted steel and concrete from Eggners Ferry Bridge covering its bow. The vessel destroyed an entire bridge span after using the wrong navigation channel. (Associated Press/Stephen Lance Dennee photo)
The operator of Delta Mariner said the Jan. 26 accident in Kentucky Lake happened because the navigation lights denoting the main channel weren't working. The crew followed a green light that guided the 312-foot vessel through the recreation channel alongside the higher span.
The crash occurred at 2000 in rainy weather on the lake created by a Tennessee Valley Authority dam on the Tennessee River in western Kentucky. The impact from the northbound ship carried away a 322-foot-wide segment of the Eggners Ferry Bridge, raining twisted steel and asphalt down on top of the vessel's bow.
Delta Mariner's operator, Foss Maritime Co., blamed the bridge owner for the accident.
"The bridge's lack of properly functioning navigational lighting for the northbound commercial traffic span on the Tennessee River was the proximate cause of the allision," Foss said in an admiralty lawsuit.
The bridge, near Murray, Ky., carries U.S. Route 68 and Kentucky Route 80 over the lake. The span was closed very quickly and no motorists were injured.
The state Transportation Cabinet acknowledged that some navigation lights weren't working. Whether that was a cause of the crash is still under investigation, said Chuck Wolfe, a Transportation Cabinet spokesman.
"The state was planning to replace the lights the very next day," said U.S. Coast Guard spokeswoman Lt. Jennifer Jessee. She said the state agency issued an advisory before the crash indicating that the work would be done Jan. 27, and vessel traffic was going to be restricted to one lane during the job.
No mention of the warning could be found in the Coast Guard's archived weekly Local Notice to Mariners. Jessee said it may have been communicated as a radio broadcast, but that's still under investigation.
The Local Notice to Mariners mentions only that a barge would be conducting core drilling under the Eggners Ferry Bridge that week between 0600 and 2100, and mariners were urged to use caution when transiting. After the accident, the next notice indicated that all navigation lights on the bridge would be extinguished except those marking the main channel.
Constructed in 1999 at Halter Marine in Mississippi, Delta Mariner was specially designed to transport Delta 4 rocket parts from a factory in Decatur, Ala., along the Tennessee, Ohio and Mississippi rivers and Gulf of Mexico to Cape Canaveral, Fla. On this voyage, the ship was carrying an Atlas 5 booster and other components for United Launch Alliance.
According to its specifications, Delta Mariner's height is 50 feet, with an 8-foot draft. The center span of Eggners Ferry Bridge offers 57.5 feet of vertical clearance at pooled stage, Jessee said. The recreational span's vertical clearance is 33.4 feet, with a 4 percent grade.
Foss said the only navigational lights on the south side of the bridge were two red lights on the piers on each side of the recreational channel and a green light in the middle of it. "The remainder of the bridge was dark," the company said.
Neither the Coast Guard nor Foss reported any malfunction in Delta Mariner's navigation electronics or any mechanical equipment. The Coast Guard and Foss said several mariners aboard for that voyage were intimately familiar with the route.
"Two river pilots were on board at the time of the incident," said Foss spokeswoman Suzanne Lagoni. "Our crew has sailed this route many times without any incidents of this type."
Jessee said those two trip pilots, who had special local knowledge of the river, were in addition to the regular captain and mate. She said the Coast Guard is investigating who exactly was present on the bridge when the decision was made to transit the wrong channel.
T&T Bisso was hired to remove the broken bridge span from Delta Mariner's bow. The vessel went to the James Marine shipyard in Paducah, Ky., for repairs. The Coast Guard and American Bureau of Shipping approved repairs, mainly the replacement of broken safety handrails, Jessee said.
"There wasn't any structural damage to the vessel itself," she said.
Jessee said the voyage data recorder was sent to the National Transportation Safety Board for examination.
Delta Mariner delivered the rocket parts to Port Canaveral on Feb. 23. United Launch Alliance said the components were not damaged in the bridge accident.
The 80-year-old bridge, which is scheduled for replacement in coming years, remained out of service in March. The broken span remains in the river, however, after salvors dislodged it from Delta Mariner.
"They cut it away, and the debris is still there," Wolfe said. "It's not in the navigation channel. It's in the recreational channel, and it still has to come out."
Wolfe said the state plans temporary repairs and other solutions for the only highway link to the Land Between The Lakes National Recreation Area.
"There's a lot of support in the area for having a ferry service down there, and we're exploring that also," Wolfe said.