High-water bridge strike knocks 16 barges loose at Vicksburg


Sixteen barges broke free after a tow pushed by Michael G. Morris struck the railroad bridge across the Mississippi River in Vicksburg, Miss.

The 8,000-hp towboat was pushing 28 barges upriver when one or more barges hit pier No. 4 on the Old Highway 80 Bridge at 0500 on March 20. Surveillance footage suggests the current caught the tow and pushed it into pier, said Herman Smith, bridge superintendent.

“(The pilot) was in the center of the span and there was no problem at all,” Smith said of the initial approach. “But once he got enough of the head of the tow past the bridge, the current starting shoving him toward the Mississippi bank and it pushed him right on top of the pier.”

The current, Smith added, “took his steering away from him.”

The U.S. Coast Guard is investigating the incident but has not determined the cause, spokesman Brandon Giles said. All 16 barges were recovered on March 20 and none were damaged. Their cargo was not disclosed, but Giles said there were no reports of pollution.

The incident occurred during high, fast water in the Mississippi. Local river gauges registered 49.2 feet at the time, more than 6 feet above flood stage. The Coast Guard closed the river from mile marker 429 to 436 until the barges were recovered, Giles said.

Michael G. Morris was pushing the 28 barges in a four-by-seven configuration. Many of the barges had already passed under the span when the current set the tow toward the east bank. The third barge on the starboard side of the tow made first contact with the pier.

After impact, the pilot apparently tried to back the tow off the pier when the couplings failed and 16 barges went adrift. The current pushed them back through the span between piers No. 3 and No. 4, and at least one struck pier No. 3 roughly 820 feet to the east.

The pilot had lined up to pass between piers No. 4 and No. 5 on the Louisiana side of the river — an approach considered uncommon.

“I have never seen that before, although that doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen,” Smith said. “The tow was around 1,400 feet long, and that is probably not the best place for a tow that long with the current that we have.”

The navigation channel runs between piers No. 3 and No. 4. Smith said most northbound tows pass between piers No. 5 and No. 6, or No. 6 and No. 7. Those openings are 420 feet wide. Piers No. 3 and No. 4 are 820 feet apart to accommodate the main navigation channel.

A towboat from Vicksburg-based Ergon Marine was alongside Michael G. Morris in an assist role before the initial bridge strike, Smith said. The same vessel rounded up the loose barges after the incident and another Ergon tug came alongside what remained of the barge tow.

Details about the assist tug could not be confirmed. Ergon Marine did not respond to an inquiry. American Commercial Barge Line, owner of the 19-year-old Michael G. Morris, declined to comment.

The 88-year-old bridge carries rail traffic between Mississippi and Louisiana. The two affected piers sustained scratches but no structural damage.

Michael G. Morris was involved in another barge breakaway two years ago. Overnight on April 6, 2016, all 30 barges in tow broke free after one struck the Thebes Railroad Bridge in Thebes, Ill. In that case, the National Transportation Safety Board determined the pilot failed to account for the river current just above the bridge, “resulting in his late and insufficient use of rudder while making the turn.”

By Professional Mariner Staff