Mississippi River closed after bridge strike breaks 30 barges loose

Thirty barges being pushed south on the Mississippi River broke free after the lead barge struck a concrete bridge support near Vicksburg, Miss.

Capt. Buck Lay was guiding barges loaded with petroleum coke and grain downstream April 21 when the lead barge rammed a support pillar on the old U.S. Highway 80 bridge, which has railroad tracks but is not open for public use.

All of the barges were ultimately accounted for, but one sank near the channel and at least two others became partially submerged after the towline snapped. Nearly 20 miles of river were closed for almost a day following the accident.

“The facts are that the vessel was operating within the navigable channel of river (between the buoys) prior to the collision,” said Lt. Ryan Gomez, spokesman for Coast Sector Lower Mississippi River in Memphis. “The lead barge being pushed by the towing vessel struck the Vicksburg railroad bridge.”

The accident occurred shortly before noon during a period of high, fast water along much of the Mississippi, according to Accuweather.com.

The Coast Guard is investigating the accident, but declined to specify a cause or discuss whether river conditions were a factor. The agency declined to make the investigating officer available for comment.

Gomez said no other vessels were nearby when the accident occurred.

The 8,000-hp Capt. Buck Lay was built in 1981. The boat is owned by a subsidiary of American Electric Power, a power utility based in Columbus, Ohio.

One of the barges sank a few hundred feet south of the bridge. Another ran aground on a dike and a third was partially submerged on a riverbank, the Coast Guard said.

Jennifer Mason, a spokeswoman for AEP, said cargo was transferred from the two damaged barges into empty ones “in order to secure the product for transit southbound.”

“The sunken barge still remains on the riverbed due to high water conditions,” she said. “Once the river recedes to a safe level, the salvage efforts will commence.”

The company declined to comment on a possible cause for the initial bridge strike.

The Coast Guard closed the Mississippi River shortly after the accident and set a safety zone from mile marker 436 to mile marker 415. The closure affected 17 northbound tows and 12 heading south.

Herman Smith, superintendent of the Vicksburg Bridge Commission, which operates the U.S. Highway 80 railroad bridge, said it sustained only minor scrapes from the barge impact. No repairs were necessary.

The bridge is struck about 1.5 times a year on average, with as many as five occurring in one year, he said. The vast majority of strikes are caused by southbound vessels.

“Mostly, that’s because the northbound tows are going a lot slower,” he said, giving them more time to safely steer around the bridge.

By Professional Mariner Staff