Barge sinks in Ohio River after cable parts following pushboat's collision with a pier

Four barges broke away from a pushboat and one eventually sank in the Ohio River west of Pittsburgh after a cable snapped in unusually high water.

The cable broke after Carl L. Johnson struck a pier face along an industrial portion of Neville Island, about 5 miles downriver from the Pittsburgh Point, said Cmdr. Richard Timme, of U.S. Coast Guard Marine Safety Unit Pittsburgh. The Coast Guard is still investigating the exact cause of the April 27 incident.

Timme said the accident, reported at about 0445, occurred as the towboat captain waited for another vessel to pass through a set of locks downriver.

"He was trying to wait it out until the dam cleared," Timme said. The captain was "trying to put in to an area of Neville Island, trying to moor up there, (when the boat) struck up against a pier face. … The line broke apart upon hitting Neville Island."

The 1,500-hp Carl L. Johnson is 75 feet by 26 feet. Built in 1983, it is owned by John's Towing Service Inc. and is leased to Imperial Towing. It was chartered by Campbell Transportation Co., of Houston, Pa., for this voyage.

Phone messages left for a Campbell Transportation spokesman were not returned.

The Ohio River had been running several feet higher than normal for much of April and early May. The fast-moving river carried the roughly 200-foot barges down an unnavigable back channel of the river.

Of the four barges being pushed by Carl L. Johnson, one was empty, one was carrying coal, one was carrying steel coils and the other was carrying coal tar light oil, which contains the toxic chemical benzene.

After breaking free, the four barges were initially lodged against a railroad bridge. The barge containing steel coils was turned sideways in the current and started taking on water. It sank within several hours of the accident.

The empty barge and the one carrying coal tar oil were retrieved within eight hours of the accident. Crews from River Salvage Co. and Campbell Transportation recovered them by linking four empty barges together to reach the two that were stranded. The stranded barges were then added to that chain and pulled upriver under several low-lying bridges.

None of the oil escaped from the double-hulled barge, Timme said.

The third barge, carrying coal, was recovered on May 2 by a smaller tugboat that proceeded under a bridge after a crane removed its pilothouse, then reconnected it once the vessel cleared the bridge.

River Salvage was hired to salvage the sunken barge once the waters finally receded, said Lt. j.g. Alanna McGovern of the Coast Guard's Marine Safety Unit Pittsburgh. River Salvage didn't return phone calls seeking comment on the operation, which McGovern said was scheduled for mid- to late-June.

High water and faster-than-normal currents made navigating the river a challenge this spring.

"High waters pose more risk than normal," said Timme. "They were certainly higher than usual (on the day of the accident) and the waters are faster than usual, and that means extra precautions and protections have to be used by mariners out on the river."

By Professional Mariner Staff