Two barges sink after breakaway at oft-hit Vicksburg bridge


Thirty barges broke away and two later sank in the Mississippi River after their tow hit the Old Highway 80 Bridge in Vicksburg, Miss.

The 10,000-hp Chad Pregracke was en route to New Orleans with 30 grain barges when its port-side barge string ran onto a bridge pillar on Feb. 27 at 0704. Twelve barges broke away but remained lashed together, while 18 others floated free individually.

One barge sank against the bridge, located at mile marker 437, and another floated downriver about a mile before sinking outside the navigation channel. The accident occurred during a period of high water and fast currents on the Lower Mississippi.

Herman Smith, bridge commissioner for Warren County, Miss., said the tow approached the span “out of shape.”

“He didn’t hit it with the head of the tow, he landed it about his third barge back,” Smith said. “He was five long and six wide, and it landed between the third and fourth barge back on the port side.”

The Coast Guard is investigating the incident but has not determined the cause, according to Travis McGee, spokesman for the service’s New Orleans office.

A nearby river gauge measured 47.9 feet and rising when the tow hit the bridge. Flood stage starts at 43 feet, and the crest reached 51.4 feet on March 12.

High water can make an already challenging section of river even more difficult to navigate. Delta Point is located about one and a half miles upriver from the Old Highway 80 Bridge. The area is known for strong currents that can push against tows traveling in both directions.

Pat Rossi illustration

“The problem with this (section of river) is the current and being in close proximity to the Delta Point Bend,” Smith said, referring to the sharp starboard turn preceding the bridge for downriver tows. “These pilots know it, but the problem is the current is different almost every time they come down.”

The current tends to push downbound tows into Delta Point, he added, leaving little time to line up for the Old Highway 80 Bridge and the Interstate 20 bridge less than two miles downriver. The main navigation channel for both spans is 820 feet wide.

“If (the tows) get out of shape and have more of an angle than they should, it is almost unrecoverable,” Smith said, referring to the angle of approach to counter the river’s strong current. “Some recover in time and some don’t. The ones that don’t, hit.”

Two of Chad Pregracke’s barges became hung up on the bridge’s No. 3 pillar. One remained partially submerged alongside the bridge before sinking near the No. 2 pillar. The other floated downriver and sank near an Entergy power plant, the Coast Guard said.

Ergon Marine, located just north of the Old Highway 80 Bridge, corralled the drifting barges. The salvage for the two sunken barges likely will wait until the river subsides.

The Coast Guard said there was no pollution stemming from the incident. No injuries were reported and the bridge was not damaged.

The Old Highway 80 Bridge carries rail traffic between Mississippi and Louisiana. It is one of the most frequently hit bridges on the Lower Mississippi River. During the spring flood season in 2016, tows hit the bridge five times in 10 days.

Marquette Transportation operates Chad Pregracke. The company did not respond to a request for comment.

By Professional Mariner Staff