Coal barges slam into bridge

Published 12:01 am Wednesday, March 30, 2011

NATCHEZ — A collection of 20 barges carrying coal south through Natchez slammed into the center pillar of the Mississippi River bridge early Tuesday morning.

The collision was loud enough to hear, residents living along the bluff said, and immediately separated the barges sending them in multiple directions.

“It took a good hit,” Adams County Emergency Management Director Stan Owens said. “The speed of that water is just tremendous.”

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The water level in the river sat nearly a foot-and-a-half above flood stage Tuesday, contributing to the speed.

Local officials contacted the U.S. Coast Guard, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Mississippi Department of Transportation at approximately 12:30 a.m., and both agencies sent inspectors to the scene.

MDOT closed the westbound lane of the bridge from approximately 1 a.m. to 5 a.m. for inspections.

District Engineer Albert White said inspections found no problems that would make the bridge unsafe.

“There are minor scrapes on the pier, but it’s nothing to worry about,” White said. “The piers in the Mississippi River are made to withstand a lot of force. They were built to take some hits as well as the constant hit of the river.”

The Adams County Search and Rescue team’s boat was used to transport MDOT inspectors to the point of impact.

“They started there and came up the column to look up on top where the deck attaches to the pier,” White said.

Inspectors also went inside the hollow section of the pier and found no problems, he said.

Barge traffic on the river was shut down after the accident and not reopened until 11 a.m. Tuesday, U.S. Coast Guard Lt. Teresa Hatfield said.

Two barges from the American Commercial Lines Inc. unit that struck the bridge did sink, but were accounted for by Tuesday afternoon.

Hatfield, the supervisor of marine safety detachment in Vicksburg, said one barge is directly under the bridge, sitting right on the sailing line, but in deep water.

The other barge is downriver a bit on the right descending bank.

“They are no danger to navigation,” Hatfield said. “We are waiting for a salvage plan right now.”

ACL will be responsible for working with a salvage company to retrieve both barges. The marine transport company must present its plan to the Coast Guard for approval.

The barge-bridge collision was the first in Natchez this year, but the event is not uncommon when the water is high, Owens said, citing three in the last three years.

A similar collision occurred at the Vicksburg bridge last week.

Hatfield said the Lower Mississippi River Commission — made up of members of the towing industry, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Coast Guard — has been meeting frequently to monitor the effect of river levels on transportation.

“We have some restrictions in place in other areas, but I think this was just a fluke with this one particular vessel (in Natchez.) We’ll keep the lines open though,” she said.