More than 100 barges broke away from a large fleeting area near downtown St. Louis, and 11 sank in the Mississippi River.
At least four of the runaway barges struck a six-lane bridge carrying an interstate highway between Missouri and Illinois. The accident closed a 15-mile section of river and shut down the Port of St. Louis for nearly 36 hours, the U.S. Coast Guard said.
Although the cause has not been released, Coast Guard investigators say a towboat was in the vicinity of the fleeting area around the time the breakaway occurred.
“The vessel is involved in the investigation and we will not release the name of the ship, company, or master of the vessel until the investigation is complete.” said Lt. Colin Fogarty, incident management chief for Sector Upper Mississippi River in St. Louis.
“It is unknown whether a vessel struck the fleeting area. An investigation is underway to determine the exact cause,” he said.
The accident occurred at about 2215 on April 20 during a period of high water along the Upper Mississippi River, according to Accuweather.com. Coast Guard officials said river conditions posed a serious challenge.
“High water conditions, like those St. Louis is experiencing now, can pose a significant and very dynamic risk,” Cmdr. Scott Stoermer, deputy sector commander for Sector Upper Mississippi River, said in a statement.
The fleeting area affected by the accident is located near mile marker 179, just south of the St. Louis Gateway Arch, Fogarty said.
Most of the barges that broke free were secured by boats that tend the barge fleets along the river, the Coast Guard said. However, 11 barges loaded with coal sank, including at least one that went down in or near the navigation channel.
All tank barges carrying hazardous cargo were accounted for after the accident, the Coast Guard said.
American Commercial Lines, of Jeffersonville, Ind., owns 84 of the barges that broke away, and all 11 that sank. A spokeswoman declined to comment on possible causes of the breakaway.
“We continue to work closely with the Coast Guard to investigate the cause of the incident and salvage the three remaining sunken barges,” said Kim Durbin, the company’s manager of corporate communications, adding that the company’s total damages were still being calculated.
“We are very focused on learning from this incident as our number one operating priority remains the safety of our people, our customers’ cargoes and the communities in which we operate,” Durban said.
Eight of the 11 sunken barges have been raised by June, but “three submerged barges remain in the river,” Fogarty said. “The limiting factor in removing them is currently the high river levels.”
Durban said the company will keep working with the Coast Guard to salvage the remaining barges.