Coast Guard suspects towboat, barges responsible for damage to railroad bridge

Large chunks of stone were found to be missing from a pier of the bridge that crosses the Cumberland River in Clarksville, Tenn. The river was closed to commercial vessel traffic after the damage was discovered on March 30. (Jeff L.Yates)

The Coast Guard suspects a Louisiana towboat may have struck a railroad bridge over the Cumberland River at Clarksville, Tenn., and then proceeded downriver without reporting the accident.

The damage to the bridge resulted in the halting of commercial traffic on the river by the Coast Guard March 30 after passersby noticed large chunks of stone veneer missing from a pier of the R. J. Corman Railroad Bridge, which crosses the river at Mile 126.5.

Coast Guard personnel traced vessel movements through the area, based on records of vessels moving through Cheatham Lock and Dam, 21 miles upriver, and through Barkley Lock and Dam, 96 miles downriver. Their investigation led to the towboat Samuel J, operated by Florida Marine Transporters Inc., Mandeville, La. Authorities contacted the 3,300-hp vessel as it was approaching Barkley Lock with four tank barges on March 30.

When the tow arrived at Paducah, Ky., the suspect barge was checked for damage. Chief Warrant Officer Tim Smith, the Coast Guard investigating officer, said the inspection revealed “minor damage” to the starboard bow of a lead barge with several scrapes and scratches, but there were no cracked welds.

The crew of Samuel J has admitted that their tow made contact with the bridge, according to Lt. Cmdr. Tom Kaminski, with the Coast Guard Marine Safety Detachment, Nashville. “Operators of the Motor Vessel Samuel J admitted that one of the barges they had in tow rubbed the bridge pier during their transit,” he said.

If the Coast Guard investigation proves the pilot failed to report damage to the bridge pier, he could face a suspension of his license, Kaminski said. The pilot and Florida Marine Transporters might also be subject to civil action.

According to a statement from Florida Marine Transporters, Samuel J’s captain said he felt a “slight bump” when his barge struck the stone-faced pier around 2230 on March 29. He stopped his tow, checked for damages and upon finding none, continued on downriver, the company stated.

He had no idea large chunks of rock had fallen from the pier, said Tim Burns, a company spokesman.

Kaminski said the profusion of scrapes and paint transfers on the pier made it difficult to prove there had been recent contact with a barge. However, the large chunk of stone missing from the structure convinced investigators there had been an allision.
The channels through the troublesome swing bridge are only 118 feet wide, although most 15-barge tows along the Cumberland River are 105 feet in width.

Glenn Hendon, chief operating officer of Hunter Marine Transport, a Nashville, Tenn., company with tows passing through the bridge on a daily basis, said the railroad bridge is a serious navigation hazard. He has campaigned for its replacement for many years.

The Coast Guard recently restricted tows passing under the bridge to no more than four barges in length and two barges wide, or no more than 800 feet long by 80 feet in width.

Temporary repairs to the bridge were completed on April 11, but the Coast Guard was unable to say when the restriction would be rescinded. “We’re now evaluating the structural integrity of that bridge,” said Smith, the Coast Guard investigating officer. A decision will be made after reviewing engineering documentation from the railroad, he said.

Hendon said he and other operators of towboats remain concerned about the structure’s safety. “We are afraid it’s going to come down the next time it’s bumped,” he said.

By Professional Mariner Staff