Crude oil barge slams bridge|[02/02/07]

Published 12:00 am Friday, February 2, 2007

Fire illuminated a mishap on the Mississippi Thursday night, but no one was hurt and no lasting damage has been discovered.

Flames and smoke filled the sky after a barge of crude oil ignited after striking a pier on the U.S. 80 bridge.

The blaze, once almost bank-to-bank, continued through the night after the barge was secured to the bank near LeTourneau.

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The tow, owned by Florida Marine Transporters of Mandeville, La., was headed downstream with the petroleum barges when the impact came just before 9 p.m.

&#8220It failed to negotiate the bridges,” said Warren County Sheriff Pace, who was on the scene. &#8220As the barges broke loose from the tow, the burning barge was free-floating down-bound.”

Barges in a tow are held together by cables lashed capstan to capstan. The bridge, completed in 1930, has been hit uncounted times. Cables snap and barges spread – but usually without flames.

Pace said employees of Ergon Marine, operating from their base in Vicksburg, secured three other barges that had broken away from the impact site to the Louisiana bank.

For a few minutes, the flaming barge could be seen from the Mississippi Welcome Center and the entrance to Rainbow Casino, but it traveled south with the current about seven miles south to near LeTourneau Landing.

&#8220All of a sudden, the sky was just glowing,” said Curt Follmer, senior vice president and general manager of Rainbow who was at work.

The only emergency action at the casino-hotel complex, the only one south of the U.S. 80 and Interstate 20 river bridges, was to shut down ventilation systems to avoid smoke being drawn inside. Otherwise, the situation was monitored in case other steps were needed.

Pace said the barge floated about two hours before being captured and tied off about seven miles downstream from the bridges.

&#8220Crews were able to secure it to the Mississippi River bank,” Pace said.

Other than Rainbow, there is no developed property on either bank of the river in the area. &#8220The barge that was ablaze floated without making contact with anything,” Pace said.

The Vicksburg Police Department immediately shut down traffic on the Interstate 20 crossing, which parallels the U.S. 80 bridge, until it was confirmed no barge was hung up on a pier.

Herman Smith, superintendent of the U.S. 80 bridge, owned by Warren County and used only by trains, said this morning that a damage inspection was pending.

A pendulum deep inside a pier, used to detect movement, was still moving 40 minutes after the barge hit.

&#8220It was a pretty big impact,” Smith said.

An environmental expert with the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality was waiting for the fire to burn out completely before performing an assessment, said communications director Robbie Wilbur. Officials at the scene were unsure whether there was any unburned spilled petroleum.

So, far, though, no effects have been seen.

&#8220Right now, we don’t see any impact on the residents or fish and wildlife,” Wilbur said. &#8220Once the fire is out fully, we will bring in counter measures for any spill. We have contacted our biologist, and they will do a downstream water and shore assessment.”

Mickey Fedell of Rainbow Casino said a north wind kept smoke from coming in the direction of the casino and there were no flames anywhere near the complex.

The casino was already dealing with an unrelated emergency. Water service was lost about 7:30 p.m. and portable toilets were being brought in. Repairs were expected this morning.