Bridge over Intracoastal Waterway takes a hit, again

For the third time in as many months, a towboat and its tow have rammed the Louisa Bridge over the lower Atchafalaya River on the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway in Louisiana.

The bow of Kirby 31801 lies jammed under the Louisa Bridge as water fog is laid down to prevent an explosion. The barge was carrying a propane/ propylene mix when it hit the span as it was opening. The accident forced the evacuation of the area within five miles of the bridge. This is the third time bridge has been hit since May 2001.

Mr. Barry, owned by Tara Lynn Inc., was headed west on July 19, 2001, at 0415 with a barge carrying 1.1 million gallons of a flammable propane/propylene mix, when it struck the partially open span. The mishap forced the evacuation of about 500 people living within a five-mile radius of the bridge. A 10-mile section of the waterway was closed for four days as crews worked to contain the threat of explosion and extricate the barge from under the bridge.

The Louisa Bridge, which carries Route 319 across the waterway, provides the only link between Cypremort Point, La., and the mainland. Although the area is relatively sparsely populated, it attracts many visitors to the state park there.

The force of the impact sheared off pressure relief valves on two of the barge’s three tanks and cracked the valve on the third, allowing pressurized gas to escape.

“By shearing, it allowed the product to shoot straight up in the air,” said Lt. Felton Gilmore, the assistant senior investigating officer with the U.S. Coast Guard Marine Safety Office in Morgan City, La.

He estimated that about 60 percent of the cargo, or 660,000 gallons, vented into the atmosphere. As the gas escaped and the pressure inside the tanks fell, the remaining cargo cooled enough to stabilize in liquid form. Once pressure fell, crews were able to patch the vents and extricate the barge.

The barge, Kirby 31801, is owned by Kirby Inland Marine Inc., of Houston. Kirby contracted with Williams Fire & Hazard Control Inc., based in Mauriceville, Texas, to provide firefighting expertise and equipment. Kirby also rented a deck barge that was used to lay down a water fog to minimize the chance of fire. Kirby hired five other companies to provide a variety of services, including air-quality monitoring, weather forecasting and helicopter air surveillance. Approximately 150 people were involved in the emergency response to the accident, according to Kirby Senior Vice President Mark Buese.

The bridge was reopened to car traffic July 23 at 0800, on a limited basis. Initially, officials gave preference to vessels. Following the accident, about 100 vessels backed up as they waited for clearance to pass through.

The accident apparently caused relatively minor damage to the bridge. Initial estimates put the damage at no more than $50,000. No one was injured by the crash or the release of the chemicals.

However, the accident was troubling in other ways. The barge struck the span as it was opening to let the vessels pass. That circumstance raises questions about communications between the towboat captain and the bridge tender.

Then there is the fact that this marked the third time vessels have struck the bridge since May.

On May 17, Repent, a towboat with six loaded salt barges, hit the south side of the structure, destroying about 60 feet of the approachway to the moveable span (PM #58). The accident resulted in the closure of the bridge for repairs until June 28. The day after the bridge reopened, it took another hit, this time from Kenneth L. and a tow of several barges. Only minor damage to the towboat resulted and the bridge reopened just a few hours later.

The third accident became a major news event because of the release of gas and the evacuation of the area. Now investigators are trying to determine if the three accidents were connected in some way or simply represented an unfortunate cluster of unrelated events. “We’re looking at each casualty individually and collectively,” Gilmore said.

In the first incident, the Coast Guard investigation has concluded that the master of Repent was negligent. His license has been suspended for six months. That accident caused about $1.3 million in damage to the bridge.

In the latest incident, the communication between the master and the bridge tender will be a central issue. The towboat had contacted the bridge tender, who had begun to open the span.

“We knew the ship was in the channel. It’s not that he was a surprise visitor,” said Bill Fontenot, a district administrator for the Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development. “The bridge was in the process of opening. Obviously, there was some misunderstanding.”

The state is conducting a review of the procedures governing the operations of the bridge, looking for anything that might have contributed to the spate of accidents. So far, Fontenot has not seen any indication that procedures are being ignored or that they are flawed and need to be revised.

“I really can’t explain it,” he said of the series of accidents. “Everything related to the operation of that bridge that day is being reviewed.”

So for the moment, there is little the state can do but to reemphasize to the bridge operators the importance of strictly adhering to the rules.

Still, there remains the unsettling knowledge that this bridge, which operated without any major incidents over the previous 10 to 15 years, has suddenly become a sort of Louisiana Triangle. The challenge now is to find out why it keeps getting hit. “It’s not acceptable to us to have it hit that often,” Fontenot said. “It’s obvious we have to look beyond the obvious.”

By Professional Mariner Staff