Mississippi River Traffic Limited after 2 Accidents at Old Vicksburg Bridge

April 9, 2008

Towboats in single file slowly negotiated their line of barges past a Mississippi River bridge in Vicksburg Monday, a safety measure ordered after weekend accidents scattered barges in the swift current of the swollen river.

No injuries were reported and no barges sank as a result of the separate accidents Saturday and Sunday. Damage was reported to at least one barge and one towboat reported taking on some water.

In both accidents, southbound tows collided with a pier on the old U.S. Highway 80 bridge. The span no longer handles vehicle traffic but continues to be a rail crossing. It is located near the four-lane Interstate 20 bridge over the Mississippi River.

The Mississippi River continues to rise from Memphis south, with the crest at Vicksburg now expected to be 49 feet, its third-highest level here since 1973.

Lt. Teresa Hatfield, supervisor at the Coast Guard Marine Safety Detachment in Vicksburg, said Monday that officials had established a vessel traffic coordination center in Vicksburg to deal with the problem.

“At this point, we’re kind of lining them up and running them under the bridge one at a time” Hatfield said.

Water entering the Mississippi from recent heavy rains across the central U.S. has irritated the already swollen river and forced higher crest predictions. The situation has created major headaches for towboats attempting to navigate the treacherous current.

Hatfield said it was uncertain how long barge traffic restrictions would continue at Vicksburg, noting that the picture would likely change again if the Bonnet Carre Spillway, a safety valve about 30 miles north of New Orleans, is opened. The spillway is designed to reduce the river’s water volume and eases stress on the levees.

Frank Worley, a spokesman for the Vicksburg District of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, said the latest reports from Sunday’s accident indicated a 19-barge tow collided with the left descending bank pier of the old bridge, causing barges to scatter.

Worley said Saturday’s accident, also a southbound tow, apparently collided with the same pier, setting several barges adrift.

All the barges were rounded up and none were lost, officials said.

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