Mississippi closed for three days after barges sink near Baton Rouge

Record-high water levels contributed to the sinking of three barges after a towboat struck two docks in the Mississippi River near Baton Rouge, La. The river was closed for three days as a result.

The accident happened May 20 just below the Upper Baton Rouge Bridge. At about 1330, the line boat Crimson Gem, pushing 20 barges, struck the Rhodea Dock, then the Kaiser Dock, on the river's east bank, causing four barges to break off the tow. One barge was recovered, but three sank.

A Coast Guard response boat and the assist vessel John H. Macmillan stand by as crews prepare to test Crimson Gem's barges. (Photo ourtesy U.S. Coast Guard/Petty Officer 1st Class Chris Botello)

The 195-foot Crimson Gem is operated by the American River Transportation Co. (ARTCO), a subsidiary of Archer Daniels Midland Co. In a press release, ARTCO said the tow experienced the problems while heading southbound "when the high water and rapid current forced the tow toward the east bank of the river."

The river current at the bridge was about 6 knots, according to Lt. j.g. Brian Dochtermann, a spokesman at the Coast Guard Marine Safety Unit, Baton Rouge. In the winter, the current typically runs at 2 knots.

Workers on the Rhodea Dock were in the process of loading sulfuric acid into a barge when they saw Crimson Gem lose control. "The workers were able to stop loading because they saw that it was going to hit," said Dochtermann.

The Crimson Gem tow hit the barge being loaded with sulfuric acid. Because workers shut the operation down in time, there was no spill. After the tow struck the Kaiser Dock, three barges containing corn broke away and sank.

The river was closed to all vessel traffic between mile markers 228 to 237 until May 23. On that date, northbound vessels were allowed to proceed one at a time, but had to work with Vessel Traffic Services in New Orleans.

On May 24, the river opened to southbound traffic, but vessels could only transit in the daytime, with no more than 20 barges and a minimum of 300 hp per barge, the Coast Guard said. All southbound traffic was required to use an assist vessel of at least 5,000 hp. About 50 vessels were waiting along the banks by the time southbound traffic was allowed to move.

Local captains say this stretch of the river is extremely challenging. Going southbound, the river makes a 90-degree turn around Wilkinson Point, after which is the Highway 190 bridge.

"The fact that you have a bridge located immediately below a point is a tricky situation to move down through, when you have a normal current in the river," said Z. Dave Deloach, owner of Deloach Marine Service of Port Allen, La.

"When you start adding extreme high water, when you get the levels of water that we're talking about, and the eddies are working on both the point side and the bend side, and you have a narrow strip of southbound current that you can use to flank the bridge, it gets extremely difficult," said Deloach. "It takes a lot of experience to maneuver through there."

In a situation going around a bend like this, "you have to keep yourself in a position where those eddies don't catch your tow and spin you around and get you out of control," said Deloach.

"That is one of the worst bends on the whole river," said Capt. Randy Henson, fleet coordinator for the Ingram Capital Fleet in Baton Rouge.

At 1300 on May 20, the Baton Rouge gauge was at 44.62 feet. This gauge registered its highest level of 44.96 feet at 0800 on May 19. By comparison, on May 20, 2010, the river level at Baton Rouge was 32.68 feet, according to the Army Corps of Engineers website.

"The currents are moving a lot faster than normal," said Dochtermann. "We are still investigating what the cause was. There are so many variables."

In response to the submerged barges, the Coast Guard determined that there was 68 feet of water above one barge, 90 feet over another and 115 feet over the third. The barges could not be salvaged immediately.

"Right now the barges remain submerged, so we are going to wait until the water recedes and it gets safer to go in and raise those barges," said Roman Blahoski, a spokesman for Archer Daniels Midland.

By Professional Mariner Staff