March 20, 2009
Barge tow takes out Biloxi bridge span
The Coast Guard continues to respond to the collapse of the Popp's Ferry Bridge in Back Bay in Biloxi, Miss., after the towing vessel Cheryl Stegbauer, owned by Southern Towing Company and pushing eight barges, struck the bridge earlier this morning.
No injuries were reported in the incident, but bridge tender Margaret Johnson had to be rescued by emergency workers, and her vehicle, which was parked next to the bridge tender's house, fell into the water.
The tow was two-barges-wide-by-four-barges-long and was carrying loaded rock. The first two barges were damaged. One barge has sunk and the other is listing due to being covered by a portion of the collapsed bridge. The tanks on the listing barge have been inspected for leaks and it is not taking on water.
Currently there is a 500-yard safety zone on both sides of the bridge.
The Coast Guard says that while the investigation is still ongoing, initial reports show that the master of the towing vessel was properly licensed.
Coast Guard Sector Mobile received a call from the Department of Marine Resources for the state of Mississippi at approximately 7:40 a.m., reporting that the bridge had collapsed onto the barges of the towing vessel.
Biloxi Mayor A.J. Holloway has been meeting with structural engineers and representatives of the Mississippi Department of Transportation to determine what repairs can be made to the Popp's Ferry bridge and how long those repairs might take.
Until further notice, the city and MDOT are redirecting traffic to Interstate 110 or Highway 605. The marine channel at the Popp's Ferry bridge remains closed to marine traffic.
"We're very fortunate that there was no loss of life or injuries," said Mayor Holloway, who surveyed the scene and spoke to Margaret Johnson immediately after emergency workers used ladders to lower her from the isolated bridgetender's house.
"Our bridgetender did everything she was supposed to do," Holloway said. "She was aware of the approaching tug, she lowered the crossing bars and raised the draw spans, but the barges began veering to the south and out of the channel, striking the bridge south of its bumper system."
Holloway, who has been pushing for more than a decade for a new and wider bridge at Popp's Ferry, said he hoped the accident could help speed up that project. The city, working with MDOT and the Federal Highway Administration, was able to have contractors replace the Katrina-damaged bridge in four months. That project cost about $8.3 million, which included a million-dollar incentive bonus for the contractor.
"We've said all along that this was not an 'if' situation, but a 'when' situation," Mayor Holloway said. "Now, our goal is to see how quickly this bridge can be repaired, find the funding, and push even harder to get a new-and-safer bridge in place."