Towboat and barges take out highway bridge in Biloxi, Miss.

Above, barges being pushed by the towboat Cheryl Stegbauer struck the Popp’s Ferry Bridge in Biloxi, Miss. The impact caused a section of the bridge to collapse. The falling debris sank one of the lead barges. Photos courtesy U.S. Coast Guard

Two barges being pushed by a towing vessel struck and demolished a highway bridge over a bay along Mississippi’s southern coastline.

The U.S. Coast Guard said it is investigating whether unusual tidal currents were a factor in the March 20 accident on the Back Bay of Biloxi.

Cheryl Stegbauer was pushing eight barges loaded with crushed stone when the two lead barges smashed into the Popp’s Ferry Bridge at 0740, the Coast Guard said. The westbound vessels had suddenly drifted to port and missed the open drawbridge.

“The first (barge) came into contact with a wooden dolphin system we have out there — a cluster of wooden timber piles. Then it did come into contact with the piles,” said Kelly Castleberry, a spokesman for the Mississippi Department of Transportation. “It struck the (bridge) bent.”

(A bent comprises two or more piles connected at the top by a cap or other member holding them in place.) “There were eight battered and broken piles, and two 90-foot spans fell into the sound.”

At least one of the bridge spans fell on top of the first two barges, the Coast Guard said.

“The tow was two-barges wide by four barges long and was carrying loaded rock,” the Coast Guard said in a statement March 20. “The first two barges were damaged. One barge has sunk while the other is listing due to being covered by a portion of the collapsed bridge.”

The tow was 150 feet off-course, said Lt. j.g. Isaac Mahar, a Coast Guard spokesman in Mobile, Ala.

Nobody was hurt in the incident. With the drawbridge opening, vehicles had stopped at a red light a safe distance away from the collapse. The bridge tender’s pickup truck slid into the bay from next to the bridge house, where she narrowly escaped injury. She was rescued from the house by emergency responders using boats and ladders.

Cheryl Stegbauer is owned and operated by Southern Towing Co. of Memphis, Tenn. William Stegbauer, the company’s president, said there was no sign of equipment failure on the towing vessel. It required no repairs and remained in service without interruption.

Stegbauer said the vessels were at the end of a voyage carrying crushed stone from Kentucky’s Cumberland River to a Warren Paving facility at the western end of the Back Bay. Southern Towing vessels make that trip on a regular basis. He said the Cheryl Stegbauer crew that day was very familiar with the waterway, which can confront mariners with tricky currents.

“It’s a very snakelike navigation path through the Back Bay,” Stegbauer said. “The tide going in and out does have an effect on the currents in all of the Back Bay. Sometimes they come and go a little quicker than at other times. … It’s challenging, but we do it all the time.”

The captain involved in the collision has eight or nine years of experience piloting vessels, Stegbauer said. The captain, who was very upset, still works for Southern Towing but was taking several weeks off.

“He was pretty shook up,” Stegbauer said. “He’s still employed here. We’re going to put him on a different tow, so he doesn’t have to return to that Back Bay for a while.”

The Coast Guard had not determined a cause of the accident as of April. The captain and crew passed drugs tests.

McKinney Salvage & Heavy Lift of Baton Rouge, La., finished salvaging the barges April 1. L & A Contracting Co. of Hattiesburg, Miss., was still removing bridge rubble from the bay later in April.

By Professional Mariner Staff