Engineer: High water possible cause of barge crash|[02/03/07]

Published 12:00 am Saturday, February 3, 2007

High water may have been a factor in the fiery crash that was the result of a barge hitting a pier on the old Mississippi River bridge Thursday night.

Friday’s Mississippi River stage, though falling, was recorded at 36.6 feet at Vicksburg, higher than usual for this time of year, according to the National Weather Service’s Lower Mississippi River Forecast Center.

&#8220The higher the river stage, the faster the water moves. And it’s harder to control those barges,” said Rudolph McLellan, senior technical adviser for HNTB of Baton Rouge, the engineering firm for the river bridge.

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The barge, the FMT 5004, was the only one of four towed by the MV John Roberts to catch fire. The tow trying to navigate south through the two river bridges here is owned by Mandeville-based Florida Marine Transporters. It broke apart after the impact. No injuries were reported.

Pier 4 of the U.S. 80 bridge has already earned the moniker &#8220Scar,” for countless hits by barges throughout its 76-year history, said Herman Smith, superintendent of the county-owned bridge, which was privately built. And even though the crash and explosion by the barge left fresh &#8220wounds,” McLellan said the bridge remains sound.

&#8220It made a gash of about 6 inches on its concrete face,” he said. &#8220But we determined it’s not significant to the bridge based on structural calculations.”

A closer look at the pier, home to the American flag that flies high above, shows oil stains and burn marks, as well as white marks from where the concrete was torn away. But a pendulum weight inside the pier came to rest right where it is supposed to, McLellan said, indicating no movement.

&#8220When the barge hits the pier, the pier would move or tilt. We measured it to see if it moved, and it was where it’s supposed to be. It tells us the pier is OK,” he said.

As part of the inspection, McLellan also looked at the rail tracks to make sure they were straight.

&#8220They were level, which tells us the rails are in good shape,” he said. &#8220We’ve looked at a lot of stuff, and we feel it’s safe for railroad traffic.”

Only trains use the old bridge, but they were stopped as were vehicles on the Interstate 20 bridge, which parallels the old bridge immediately south. Vehicle traffic resumed shortly after the impact and Smith said trains began rolling again about 1:30 a.m.

McLellan said he hasn’t seen a barge catch on fire as a result of a crash into a bridge in more than a decade.

&#8220When steel hits concrete and the cargo is flammable, that potential exists,” he said. &#8220And this was a pretty good flaming.”

Downriver, firefighters were still putting out flames late Friday morning. Once the fire was extinguished, at about 10 a.m., Shannon Lowery, an environmental scientist with the emergency services branch of the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality, assessed the area where the FMT 5004 was tied to the Mississippi bank of the river, about a mile from LeTourneau. Crews from Florida Marine were keeping the deck cool and figuring how much crude oil was on board to determine how much leaked out or burned. Lowery said he saw &#8220a little bit” of oil at the water’s edge about a half a mile south of the barge, which had been surrounded by floating booms to contain spills. About 200 feet away, he spotted a pie plate-sized glob, not enough to cause concern.

&#8220I see no problems for aquatic life with the little bit that is there,” he said.

Smoke from the blaze seemed to pose no problem for humans or wildlife, either.

&#8220There were no feathered friends or fur-bearing animals around, and that area seems to be real rural. I didn’t see any residents,” he said. &#8220The wind was carrying the smoke right down the river. I don’t see that there would be any problems.”

Lowery said Florida Marine was to bring another barge in Friday afternoon to transfer the remaining cargo from the burned barge. The three remaining barges were tied off along the Louisiana bank of the Mississippi River.