Barge sinks after tow hits Mississippi River railroad bridge

Twenty-five barges broke loose after a Mississippi River tow struck a railroad bridge, and one of the barges sank.

Barges with the 168-foot towing vessel Jay Luhr hit the Thebes Railroad Bridge at 2004 on March 30. The bridge crosses the Mississippi River between Illinois and Missouri.

The downbound barges, loaded with rock, struck the pier to the left of the transit span. Visibility was good and the current was running between 2.6 and 3.5 knots, according to Lt. Charlotte A. Keogh of the Coast Guard Marine Safety Unit in Paducah, Ky.

The starboard side of the tow hit the bridge, which chipped a small piece out of the pier. The collision caused all 25 barges to break loose. One barge sank; the other 24 were recovered. Jay Luhr is owned by Luhr Bros. Inc., of Columbia, Ill.

This section of the Mississippi River, at mile market 43, is difficult to navigate, especially in the dark, with the river rising, according to Steve Glenn, port captain for Luhr Bros.

"It is a treacherous section of the river," Glenn said. "You have to flank around a bend above the bridge. When the river is rising, it makes changes in the current's reactions around the piers."

The Coast Guard is investigating the cause of the accident. Luhr Bros. is a marine construction company that specializes in building levees, dredging, stone placement and cofferdam construction. Its barges transport rock.

Over the next six weeks, this section of the river rose 16 feet and hit its highest point on May 2, according to the Army Corps of Engineers.

"It is an unforgiving river," Glenn said. "You have to have your marks, do everything right and do not make an error when you get to the bridge. When you do, what happens is what happened to us." Glenn said the company runs tows through this section of the river in daytime and nighttime.

The Army Corps made improvements to this section back in the 1980s, according to Jay Luhr, vice president of the company. Rocks in the section of the river before the bridge were blasted out and the navigation channel was deepened.

Locating the sunken barge was difficult with the river running so fast, according to Luhr. The sonar equipment available could not locate the barge. So Luhr asked a friend with a bass boat and a side-scan sonar to help, according to Keogh. Using this sonar, the barge was found wrapped about the bridge pier, with about 20 feet of water above it.

"Once we found out where (the barge) was and that it wasn't going anywhere, we could reopen the river," said Keogh. The Coast Guard closed a portion of the Mississippi for one day, from mile marker 43, near Thebes, to mile marker 0, near Cairo, Ill.

Salvage of the barge will have to wait for the river to drop, according to Luhr.

By Professional Mariner Staff