River barge freed after 22 days stuck on bridge

Published 11:59 am Thursday, April 14, 2011

After 22 days of being hung up on a Mississippi River Bridge pier, a partially sunken bean barge was broken free Wednesday, clearing the waterway for the first clear navigation in weeks.

“We’re all very tired,” Coast Guard Lt. Teresa Hatfield said after a 90- to 100-foot section of the barge was pulled from water by cranes at about 1:15 p.m. and taken across the river to the west bank just south of the Interstate 20 and U.S. 80 bridges.

Today, what is left of the barge was to be hauled to the Port of Vicksburg where the new goal is to cut off parts damaged by a chisel during the salvage operation, Hatfield said.

Sign up for The Vicksburg Post's free newsletter

Receive daily headlines and obituaries

The soybean-laden barge lodged next to the pier on March 23 after 30 southbound barges, driven by a swollen Mississippi River, broke loose from the Marquette Transportation tow and scattered, some hitting the U.S. 80 bridge, some hitting the I-20 bridge and some floating south of the city to near LeTourneau landing before being rounded up.

The March 23 strike was one of four in a few days on the Lower Mississippi, and all are being investigated by the Coast Guard.

Three weeks of delicate maneuvering around the four-lane highway bridge by the Coast Guard, several government agencies and the marine shipping industry led to the rescue Wednesday.

Future salvage operations on the submerged piece of barge will take place as river levels fall, the Coast Guard said in a release late Wednesday. The river will be re-opened to vessel traffic by later today.

“This was a complicated and highly dynamic salvage effort,” Cmdr. Scott Anderson, deputy commander of Sector Lower Mississippi River, said in the release. “It would not have been as successful without the close cooperation of the Coast Guard, the Louisiana and Mississippi Departments of Transportation, law enforcement agencies on both sides of the river, the Vicksburg Bridge Commission, the Army Corps of Engineers, and the marine industry.”

By 5 p.m., a barge loaded with 2-ton boulders had pulled up under the bridge to shore up what Louisiana transportation officials believe is a deepening scour hole on the river bottom. The $750,000 in emergency work was contracted out last week and is expected to last through Saturday, said T. Marshall Hill, chief engineer for the Louisiana Department of Transportation & Development’s Monroe district.

Earlier Wednesday, Vicksburg Bridge Commission members voted to seek reimbursements from Marquette Transportation to repair I-bars that hold down the old U.S. 80 bridge’s superstructure while trains pass. Bolts were sheared off in various places, including above pier 3, the one hit on March 23. A separate proposal by Kansas City Southern Railway to replace 1,500 rail ties was also approved. The work totals $660,712.

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 36.7 feet, down four-tenths of a foot.