Bridge strike on Illinois River tears off towboat’s pilothouse


A towboat pushing two barges on the Illinois River struck a descending lift bridge near downtown Peoria, Ill., tearing off the vessel’s pilothouse.

The 2,000-hp Zeus was downbound when it hit the lift section of the Peoria and Pekin Union Railway Bridge at mile marker 160.7. The Coast Guard said the span was closing as the tow passed under it at about 2030 on Jan. 7.

The captain was the only person in the pilothouse when Zeus hit the bridge, said Lt. Daniel Wilkinson of Coast Guard Marine Safety Detachment Peoria. The captain suffered scratches from falling debris; the other seven people on board were not injured.

“He was aware of the situation,” Wilkinson said of the captain. “He had enough time before the impact to jump down at least. He was still in the pilothouse but he jumped down to the deck to protect himself.”

The investigation into the bridge strike is ongoing and the Coast Guard has not released the cause. Key details about the case — including the towboat’s air draft, any communication between the bridge tender and captain, and if the bridge was functioning properly — were not available.

Zeus was pushing two empty tank barges through Peoria at about 7 knots when the incident occurred. The tow itself was not affected and the barges were not damaged, but the towboat will require extensive repairs.

The impact sheared off the boat’s pilothouse.

Courtesy John Charles

The pilothouse, Wilkinson said, “was pretty cleanly removed from the superstructure of the rest of the towboat.”

Mariners on two fleet boats operating downriver witnessed the incident and quickly responded. The two vessels, which were not identified, faced up to Zeus’ tow and guided the barges toward a wall just south of the bridge on the right descending bank.

Skies were clear at the time of the accident with light winds. Nearby river gauges recorded 15.6 feet. The pool height — considered a baseline for vessels transiting the river — is 11.6 feet, Wilkinson said.

The 1,080-foot-long Peoria and Pekin Union Railway Bridge is more than 100 years old, although the current vertical lift system was installed in the 1980s. The Peoria and Pekin Union Railway owns the bridge, which was not damaged. Genesee & Wyoming of Darien, Conn., which operates the railroad through a subsidiary, did not respond to an inquiry.

The bridge remained in the raised position after the incident, allowing vessel traffic to pass. Wilkinson said the span reopened to railroad traffic at about noon on Jan. 8 after an inspection.

Kirby Inland Marine of Houston owns the 42-year-old, twin-screw Zeus. The company did not respond to messages seeking comment. The towboat was bound for an unidentified shipyard for repairs.

By Professional Mariner Staff