Officials see hope for today in barge battle

Published 11:58 am Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Work to lift a sunken 35-foot soybean barge from below the Interstate 20 bridge stretched into its third week today, as officials hoped the final steps were on the way.

Meanwhile, the owner of a Vicksburg barge company said delays caused by the salvage efforts have grown “costly.”

“They’re going to attempt to lift the barge off the pier with two cranes and remove the barge that way,” Lt. j.g. Ryan Gomez said Tuesday as he explained the half of the barge that was cut away on Monday has sunk in 30 feet of water.

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Today, crews were to place chains on the remaining piece, which is facing the navigation channel.

The barge ran aground below the bridge March 23 and sank when a 30-barge tow broke apart on rising water, the second barge strike in Vicksburg in four days up to then and the fourth overall on the Lower Mississippi. All are being investigated by the Coast Guard.

The river, which crested at Vicksburg March 31 at three-tenths of a foot above the 43-foot flood level, has been steadily dropping. This morning, it was 37.1 feet, down seven-tenths.

Since the bridge was hit the last time, waterway traffic has been restricted to northbound tows at night and only a few test tows during the day to break up intermittent logjams of barges up and down the river.

“It’s been a monumental roadblock for the industry,” said Steve Golding, president of Vicksburg-based Golding Barge Line. Citing delays of 10 to 20 days, he said the impact has been “costly.”

“We’ve had barges hit the bridge before. But, barges wrapping around a pier and this type of salvage operation? It’s pretty bizarre,” Golding said.

Southbound tows have been allowed to pass below the bridges each day between dawn and when salvage work begins around midmorning.

“Any vessels that stack up during the night, they’ll clear them out in the morning for southbound,” Gomez said.

Vessels owned by the Coast Guard and Big River Shipbuilding and Salvage have been supported by tugs with Ergon Marine and Industrial Supply and Marquette Transportation, which owned the tugs pushing the tows that hit Vicksburg’s river bridges.

Along the way, people have watched from the bank.

“Honestly, I think that grass was a bit shorter when I started sitting here,” said Albert Smith, fleet manager at Ergon.

Harry K. Woods of Vicksburg has been going to the spot as “a daily activity” over the past three weeks, each time seeking to stand near anyone he sees with a handheld radio in hopes he’ll be at the right place when the barge is removed.

“I was just waiting for that magic word from you,” Woods told Smith Tuesday.

Before turning away with his radio to direct a support boat Smith told Woods only, “Silence is golden.”