Mississippi River tow strikes bridges at Vicksburg; barges break loose

Sixteen barges broke loose after a tow struck a railroad bridge at Vicksburg, Miss., while the Mississippi River's water level was high.

The towboat Kay A. Eckstein was southbound with 30 hopper barges when the collision happened at 1333 on March 23. The towboat struck the Old Vicksburg Bridge, causing the 16 barges to break free.

One of those barges then struck the adjacent Interstate 20 Bridge, partially sank and wrapped around an abutment. The barge was carrying dry cargo, so there was no pollution.

The 180-foot Kay A. Eckstein is operated by Marquette Transportation Co., which had no comment on the collision.

The river was closed for about 18 hours after the incident, according to Lt. j.g. Ryan Gomez, a U.S. Coast Guard spokesman. After reopening the river, the Coast Guard set up a safety zone from mile marker 430 to mile 440.

On March 25, northbound traffic was allowed to transit after contacting the Vicksburg Information Center. However, southbound traffic was not permitted until March 28, at which point there were 36 vessels waiting to transit southbound.

The salvage operation was extremely complicated and resulted in traffic restrictions on this section of the river until work was completed April 19.

The river level at Vicksburg on March 23 was 41.58 feet, according to the Army Corps of Engineers website.

"It is a river level that we typically experience some issues with, when it is on the rise," said Lt. Teresa Hatfield, supervisor at the Marine Safety Detachment in Vicksburg. On March 1, the river stage had been 25.4 feet. At the height of the flood, the river crested at 57.05 feet on May 20.

The barge was wrapped around the I-20 bridge's abutment 1, which is next to the main navigation channel. The two bridges come after a sharp bend in the river.

The challenging salvage operation was completed by Big River Ship Builders & Salvage Inc. of Vicksburg. The barge was held sideways against the pier, just below the water, according to Hugh Smith, Big River's project manager. The company worked between the two bridges in a strong current, setting anchors above the bridge and using anchor winches to get into position, Smith said.

New equipment had to be fabricated due to a height restriction at the bridge. Work with the new equipment began April 11. The salvors had to cut the barge in two pieces to remove it from the abutment.

"It was quite an effort," Smith said.

During the salvage operation, northbound traffic proceeded at night, Gomez said. Southbound traffic only moved between sunrise and the time salvage operations started.

"It was a delicate balancing act out there," Gomez said. Sensors monitored the bridge during salvage and the eastbound lane of I-20 was closed until work was completed.

The Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development examined the bridge and found only minor damage, according to spokeswoman Amber Leach. It is not unusual for commercial maritime traffic to hit this bridge.

"The bridge is most likely struck multiple times per year, but we are not necessarily notified of every impact," said Leach. "We are typically notified of significant impacts, and these occur approximately one time a year."

By Professional Mariner Staff