Fifty years after chlorine barge disaster, much has become forgotten history

Published 12:30 am Sunday, October 14, 2012

Clippings from newspapers fifty years ago depict the extent of the response after a barge carrying chlorine tanks sunk 7 miles south of Natchez. Residents were given gas masks, Gov. Ross Barnett was kept informed about the event and a massive structrure was built to lift the tanks out of the river.

NATCHEZ — Those living through a national disaster that drew presidential attention and left the city occupied by the military 50 years ago never would have imagined that today’s residents would know or care so little about the frightful incident.

But as the anniversary of President John F. Kennedy’s involvement in “Operation Chlorine” came and went last week, few Natchezians glanced at the Mississippi River with fear and worry.

The mentality was much different in October 1962, but the story started months before.

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Sinking and locating

On the morning of March 23, 1961, the Wychem 112, a tow constructed south of Baton Rouge, was pushing 16 barges heading upriver from New Orleans to South Charlestown, W.Va.

The barge carrying 1,100 tons of poisonous liquid chlorine sank when a strong current seven and a half miles south of Natchez caused the bow of the craft to submerge, filling it with water and snapping the lines that latched it to the other barges on the fleet.

The barge fell immediately to the bottom of the river and stayed there for nearly 18 months, until river levels were low enough to begin searching.

During the fall of 1961, an attempt to locate and identify the barge was commissioned by its owner, Wyandotte Chemical Company, but failed because of high water river conditions.

The response to the situation was then delayed by 17 months.

On Sept. 7, 1962, President Kennedy ordered the U.S. Corps of Engineers to begin locating the sunken barge and raise the chlorine tanks from the river while the river levels were low. The operation was dubbed “Operation Chlorine.”

But even after river levels lowered, the barge was still a needle in a haystack.

“The river is strewn with wrecks and this barge was almost completely covered by river sand and silt,” Colonel Warren Everett of the Vicksburg District Corps of Engineers said in an Oct. 14, 1962, article in The Natchez Democrat.

It took a Navy submarine-chasing plane to finally identify the actual location of the barge after making several trips through the area.

With an exact location established, Corps of Engineers officials moved in a floating jetting rig and sank a hydraulic jet at the site of the barge to begin the removal process.

But before any of the four cylindrical containers made of heavy steel were removed, the engineers were asked to determine the possibility of any possible leak.

“It was soon determined the containers … were in fine shape and that the valves of the banks were also in excellent condition,” Everett said in 1962. “There was no reason to believe that there would be any trouble when the chlorine is actually removed from the water.”

Everett also emphasized, however, that a leak while the barge was still underwater would be trouble.

The chemical would turn into a gas after rising through the water and would go downwind putting 25 to 30 miles of the surrounding areas in a danger zone.

Those areas included three counties in Mississippi, including Adams County, and three parishes in Louisiana, including Concordia Parish.

And despite officials saying there was a less than one in a million chance of that happening, more than 12,000 gas masks were issued to Natchez and Vidalia citizens as well as all the engineers working on the project.

The gas masks are one of the most vivid memories for Catherine Ratcliffe, who was 13 years old and a student at Cathedral at the time.

“It was like we were in a war zone or something,” Ratcliffe said. “We would have chlorine drills at school where all the students would practice how to put on the gas masks and then load up in the back of National Guard trucks.

“It was very exciting for a 13 year old.”

As the raising of the barge came closer, more National Guard officers were stationed in Natchez and evacuation measures were taken in the area to prepare for the worst.

While the area held its breath — sometimes, literally — the recovery effort got under way and on Oct. 2, 1962, a joint venture contract was issued to Brown and Root, Marine Operations, Inc. of Houston and Triple “C” Boars Inc. of Morgan City, La., to raise the barge and remove the chlorine tanks.

The operations were given a presidential boost on Oct. 10, 1962, as Kennedy declared the situation a “major disaster” and authorized the use of federal funds to underwrite the expenses to complete the operation.

After the riverbed under the tanks was successfully dredged for several weeks, on Oct. 24, 1962, the first chlorine tank was successfully lifted from the river without any issues.

As officials continued preparations to remove the remaining three tanks, the threat of a gas leak was still in the air — especially for those commuting between Natchez and Vidalia.

“I lived across the river and every time I crossed the bridge to go to work I held my breath a little,” Corrine Randazzo said. “I know it was a touch and go situation for the workers getting them out, but I was just hoping they would hurry up and finish every time I crossed that bridge.”

During the chlorine operation, Randazzo served as a librarian for the Natchez High School and said the general attitude around town was that of worry — except for the students.

“Everyone around town was afraid because we didn’t know what to except, but most of the students thought it was fun,” Randazzo said. “I think at first they thought it was fun and all the girls thought the National Guardsmen were cute, but when they found out what could happen it made them a little antsy.”

By Nov. 5, 1962, all four chlorine tanks had been successfully removed from the river without issue.

The entire operation left a $2 million price tag, and just two days later on Nov. 7, 1962, officials were still uncertain who was picking up the tab.

But with all the tanks removed and National Guard officers slowly leaving the city, all that was left for residents was to return their gas masks and continue on with their daily routines.

“There were all these National Guard people and reporters here one day and then they were all gone the next day,” Ratcliffe said. “Then you were supposed to turn back in your government issued gas mask, but Everett (Ratcliffe, now her husband) kept his.”

And even as this year marks the 50th anniversary of “Operation Chlorine,” Randazzo said the situation is not something she often finds herself talking about with community members — unless something happens on the river.

“I haven’t heard or talked about it in years,” Randazzo said. “Now, when something sinks into the river or something else happens on the river you’ll hear some conversation about it, but I really can’t remember the last time I’ve talked about it.”