Strong current pins tow to railroad bridge over Tennessee River

Cooperative Spirit

A towboat pushing eight loaded barges up the Tennessee River ran into fast-moving current that stopped the tow’s forward progress and pinned it against a railroad bridge.  

Ed Rahe photo

The 76-foot Bearcat was passing under the Norfolk Southern railroad bridge at mile 591.5 near Loudon, Tenn., when it encountered trouble at about 0630 on Feb. 21. The tow remained stuck against the span for two days until an assist tugboat arrived. 

Bearcat and its tow “stalled due to a strong head current just after passing under (the bridge) and the master lost control,” the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) said in an incident notice. “The tow began to top around and laid up against the bridge piers” on the upstream side.

Todd Mann, an investigator with Coast Guard Marine Safety Detachment Nashville, said no injuries or pollution were reported. The cause is still under investigation, limiting what the service can share publicly. 

Bearcat and its dry cargo barges were approaching Loudon when the incident occurred. The port side of Bearcat’s tow pressed against the concrete bridge pier closest to the shore, located on the east side of the navigation channel.

Surveys conducted after the incident did not reveal any structural damage to the bridge, Mann said. Attempts to reach Norfolk Southern Railway for additional details were not successful. The tow stayed intact during the episode, and the navigation channel remained open. 

The railroad bridge is located about 10 miles downriver from the Fort Loudoun Dam operated by the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA). Water at the dam was flowing at 45,650 cubic feet per second (CFS) on the morning of the incident, an increase of more than 50 percent from the normal rate. 

TVA spokesman Scott Fiedler said a flow rate of 50,000 CFS is the threshold for the agency to issue a notice to mariners. The estimated current speed at the bridge location was not available.

The assist tugboat Viking reached the stranded tow on Feb. 23. Viking removed Bearcat’s barges one at a time to prevent a breakaway. Mann said the effort lasted much of the day and finished at about 1630.

The bridge incident occurred about 60 miles downriver from Knoxville on a relatively quiet section of the Tennessee. The waterway has a 652-mile navigable channel that runs from Knoxville to Paducah, Ky., where it meets the Ohio River.

“Commercially we don’t get a lot of traffic out there other than the tugs that work in the area,” Mann said of the incident location. “That is why they had to wait so long for the assistance vessel to arrive.”

After coming free from the bridge, Bearcat reassembled its tow and continued its voyage. The Coast Guard did not disclose its destination or the cargo in the barges. The service also would not say how many crew were working on the tow. 

Serodino Inc. of Chattanooga, Tenn., operates Bearcat, which was built in 1991. Attempts to reach the company for comment about the incident were not successful.

By Professional Mariner Staff