Old photos of towboat hitting bridge became an internet sensation

Hundreds of thousands of people the world over have seen the photos by now. The 19 shots show a frightening sequence of a towboat being sucked sideways under a bridge in a fast current on a flood-swollen Alabama river. As a score of awe-struck people watch from the bridge, the boat is pulled underwater beneath the span, only to pop up on the other side and right itself. Its engine still running, the boat limps to shore.

This series of photos a selection from the 19 that appeared on the Internet. They show Cahaba, an 80-foot towboat, striking the Rooster Bridge over the Tombigbee River in western Alabama, getting forced under by the current and then popping up on the other side, apparently none the worse for the dunking. The pictures were taken 23 years ago by an amateur photographer. The shots first appeared in The Democrat-Reporter, a weekly newspaper in Linden, Ala. (Click to view series)

That accident happened 23 years ago and was caught on camera by an amateur photographer who happened to be there that day. But it wasn’t until this winter that the photos began showing up far and wide on the Internet. That’s where they took on a life of their own and captured the fascination of mariners and non-mariners across the country and around the world.

The photos appeared on at least 20 websites, became fodder in various chat rooms and compelled some people to start online discussion groups devoted solely to the accident. They were emailed among friends, family and acquaintances. Dozens of people telephoned the company that owned the boat and the newspaper that first published the shots.

Goodloe Sutton Sr., owner and publisher of The Democrat-Reporter, a weekly newspaper in Linden, Ala., said the photos generated plenty of local interest when he first published them in a two-page spread in late April 1979. But with a circulation of only 3,500 at the time — it’s now up to 7,000 — the paper could spread the death-defying story of M/V Cahaba only so far.

In late February and March 2002, however, the photos began showing up in serious fashion on the Internet, giving them a potential audience of millions. Suddenly, anybody anywhere with a computer and an Internet hookup could have access to the photos. Sutton, whose family has owned The Democrat-Reporter since 1917, said he is astounded by the stir they have created.

“It’s generated more interest now than back then when it happened,” Sutton said.

As is the case with a lot of things that show up on the Internet seemingly out of thin air, a lot of misinformation has been passed about regarding the accident.

This much is known: On April 19, 1979, M/V Cahaba, an 80-foot, 1,800-hp towboat, was bringing barges filled with coal down the Tombigbee River in western Alabama. According to The Democrat-Reporter’s account, torrential rains had pushed the river to record levels. With the late Capt. Jimmy Wilkerson at the helm, the boat approached Rooster Bridge, a drawbridge on Route 80, about 10 miles west of the town of Demopolis. When the draw rose, cars stopped, and people got out to watch the boat maneuver its way through the opening.

One of those people was the late Charles Barger, who lived in nearby Meridian, Miss. He began taking photos with a 35-mm camera he had with him. As Cahaba came downriver, it steered the barges toward a part of the bridge close to shore, where the currents are slower. It is a common practice to release barges under a bridge, close to shore, then throttle the towboat full steam astern, bring the boat through the open drawbridge and catch up with the barges downstream.

Apparently, Barger told the newspaper, the deck hands — who, by this time, were on the barges — had trouble disconnecting one of the wires that connected the towboat to one of the barges. Rather than releasing the barges and going through the open draw, Cahaba was drawn into the bridge and pushed sideways with the powerful current slamming it broadside.

Cahaba started rolling underwater as the current sucked it under the bridge. With the high water, there was very little clearance between the bottom of the bridge and the river. Barger could hear the boat scraping the bottom of the bridge as it made its way downstream the hard way.

“The adrenaline was unbelievable,” Barger told Sutton. “I just knew the boat had sunk and I had seen all those men drown.”

The spectators, by this time, had scattered in fear. But Barger ran to the downriver side of the bridge and kept snapping away, capturing the moment when Cahaba popped up on the other side. Water poured from its top deck and out of the pilothouse where a window had blown in. Wilkerson remained at the helm and steered the boat toward shore as another boat chased down the barges.

Amazingly, nobody was injured, but Wilkerson was certainly shaken. A person who identified himself as a riverboat captain wrote a message on an Internet message board in March saying he went through the Rooster Bridge shortly before Cahaba. He said Wilkerson was still distressed a month later when they had a cup of coffee and talked about the incident.

“He was smoking a Camel non-filter but didn’t even need an ashtray because his hands were still shaking too much for the ash to build up to any degree,” he said on the message board.

The bridge sustained minor damage, and the boat had an estimated $75,000 in damages, according to the newspaper account. But it was repaired and continued working the river until Warrior & Gulf Navigation Co. of Chickasaw, Ala., sold it a couple of years ago to Madison Coal & Supply of Charleston, W.Va.


Capt. Jim Jarrell, marine traffic manager for Madison Coal, said the company rebuilt Cahaba and renamed it Capt. Ed Harris. It now operates on the Kanawha River from Point Pleasant to Boomer, W.Va., handling barges of coal, chemicals, cement, stone and other commodities.

The accident at Rooster Bridge wasn’t forgotten by any means. Photos of the mishap hang in the offices of Madison Coal and Warrior & Gulf. They have been the occasional topic of discussion on the Internet. But for the most part, they have been hidden from public view, and the accident was all but forgotten, except in the memories of a few — until February, that is, when the photos began appearing all over the Internet.

It’s hard to say for sure who first put the photos on the Internet. One website that has tracked where the photos have appeared lists 17 sites where they can be found. It lists another four sites that had the photos online but crashed because so many people clicked in to get a peek at them.

Who can blame people for being interested?

Tom Winkle of De Kalb, Ill., an engineer on M/V Joy Anne Keller that runs the lower Mississippi River, had never seen such a thing in his 25 years working on the water. He said the photos have been making the rounds at the university in his hometown, and have been especially popular among mariners in the Gulf of Mexico. He emailed the photos to friends as far away as Australia and Europe.

“This has really gone far and wide,” he said.

And it’s not just mariners. Matthew Guerreiro is a hedge fund manager who lives in New York City. He is a recreational sailor and enjoys following the maritime industry, but has never worked on a boat.

Yet, he was so intrigued by the photos when a friend told him about them that he enlarged one of the shots so he could read the name of the company on the towboat. He was captivated by the tale that unfolded before his eyes.

“It was almost like you were watching a train wreck about to happen as you scrolled down the (Internet) page,” Guerreiro said. “It was a relief to see it come out all right on the other side of the bridge.”

The appearance of the photos after all these years has also prompted people to pick up the phone in search of more information. Bob Warren, manager of administrative services for Warrior & Gulf, said dozens of people have called seeking more information, including some mariners who simply want to reminisce.

“We have been inundated with calls about those photos,” Warren said. “I’ve been told that Ripley’s Believe It or Not is interested in them.”

Jarrell said a couple of dozen people — including lawyers and even a West Virginia state legislator — have called Madison Coal wanting more information. The Democrat-Reporter has also heard from people who want to hear about the first newspaper account.

Rob Bernhard, who lives outside of Chicago and works for a rail freight company, began tracking which Internet sites ran the photos after he got emails about the shots from three friends. He also put the photos on his own website.

Bernhard said his site got an estimated 13,000 different visitors the first week of March alone. “There’s obviously a lot of demand for these images,” he said.

Bernhard also took it upon himself to determine where the photos first appeared on the Internet. The answer, he said, may lie with Ray Fagan of Pascagoula, Miss. Fagan said he first saw the photos about three years ago when they were being emailed around Gulf Coast shipyards. He converted the photos so he could post them on the Internet and placed them on his personal website where friends could see them.

Fagan said the photos sat there for two years with hardly any visits, and he forgot about them. But when he went back on his Web page in February to check it out, he saw it was receiving more visits. Then he transferred the photos to a different website that was easier to edit, and the visitors began coming. And coming and coming.

In two days alone, more than 26,000 visitors came to Fagan’s site to see the photos. Fagan’s records show that they came from at least 70 different countries, including Europe, Australia and the Far East. They came from South America, the Middle East and places such as Kyrgyzstan, Slovenia, Nicaragua, Cambodia, Saudi Arabia and Zambia.

The sheer number of visitors overloaded Fagan’s website, and the company that hosted his Internet pages billed him $2,721, he said. Fagan said he pulled down the website and has tried to raise money to pay the bill. But, he added, the story was compelling enough to motivate him to visit the accident site and make contact with eyewitnesses.

“The stories vary, probably because of the passage of time, but it’s still an amazing incident and an incredible series of pictures,” Fagan said.

Still, that doesn’t fully explain how photos from so long ago have popped up on so many Internet sites. And that has Randy Leo, a technical illustrator from Austin, Texas, scratching his head. Leo, who has also put the photos on his personal Internet site, is intrigued by the interest they have generated.

“The question in my mind is why has it surfaced 20-something years later and generated such an interest?” he said. “I don’t have an answer for that. I’d like to know.”

By Professional Mariner Staff