Swirling waters fling river barge into old bridge

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, January 25, 2005

Ergon Marine checks barges remaining in tow on the west bank of the Mississippi River after the motor vessel pushing 29 barges lost control and hit the U.S. 80 bridge. (MEREDITH SPENCER The Vicksburg Post)

[1/25/05]The high river level and swirling current may be to blame for a tow that struck the U.S. 80 Mississippi River bridge Monday afternoon, breaking cables that held barges together and sending several of them drifting downstream.

Tim Hilbun of Vicksburg was at the river overlook near the 75-year-old span when he saw the tow pushing 29 barges try to maneuver through the bend and straighten up to approach the bridge. He said the tow never made the turn and appeared to get caught in the current.

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“I thought it was going to hit Ameristar,” Hilbun said. The largest casino in the city is near the bridges, floating in an enclosed cofferdam.

Instead, the barge traveled downriver and struck Pier 3 of the bridge, snapping cables and scattering the barges.

“It was horrendously loud,” Hilbun said.

L.W. “Bump” Callaway, director of Warren County Emergency Management, said the barge that struck the bridge was carrying grain and was not hazardous. The tow was being moved by a St. Louis company ARTCO.

Three of the barges were reportedly taking on water and crews from Ergon Marine were on the river all night making repairs.

Bridge Superintendent Herman Smith said the bridge was struck twice last year by passing barges and usually when the river is high. This morning, the river was at 43.9 feet, nine-tenths of a foot above flood stage, and rising.

The crest is expected at 45 feet on Saturday, a foot below what previously had been predicted.

“The current pushes so hard they loose control and run into the piers,” Smith said.

When that happens Smith notifies Kansas City Southern Railway, which leases the railroad tracks on the bridge. Trains are stopped while engineers look over the bridge to ensure there was no structural damage.

The bridge piers are scarred, but stable. Smith said the piers are covered with 15 feet of concrete.

Engineers from the Baton Rouge firm studying the bridge, HNTB, were also called to inspect for damage, and found no structural damage.

Rising waters on the Mississippi River have also caused Louisiana officials to close the roads on top of the Mainline Mississippi River Levees from the Louisiana-Arkansas line to the Old River Control Structure through East Carroll, Madison, Tensas and Concordia parishes.

In Warren County, officials have closed roads in lower elevations including Thompson Lake, Chickasaw and Long Lake roads north of Vicksburg. Ziegler Road and Lane Street near Lake Chotard have also been closed.

City crews have also closed gates in the downtown floodwall at some openings, but have said the water is not expected to get high enough to close City Front. Rising water there has already started to cover the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ markings that show historical flood levels.