Attempts to remove errant fuel tank draw audience to riverfront

Friday, August 29, 2008
FRED LYNCH ~ Crews from Okie Moore Diving & Salvage Co. of St. Charles, Mo. worked Thursday to remove an old fuel tank from the Mississippi River across from Red Star River Access in Cape Girardeau. The tank had washed into the river Friday from a flash flood.

They came in cars and trucks, on bikes and motorcycles to Red Star Access all day Thursday. Some stayed for moments, others for hours. The steady stream of people were drawn by the magnetic force of curiosity to see the big tank in the Mississippi River.

"We've never seen this. It's something you don't see every day," Joey Kitchen said. "It looks like it's a simple operation, but it's not."

Kitchen, of Cape Girardeau, sat in a truck with two uncles, Dale and Larry Ratliff. It was the second such family outing this week.

The men wondered aloud which method was being used to move the tank and whether divers had been used to affix cables to the tank.

"We're trying to figure out if they're going to take it to dry dock or cut it up on the riverbank," Dale Ratliff said.

The oil tank belongs to Robert Erlbacher, owner of Missouri Dry Dock & Repair Co. On Wednesday, he told the Southeast Missourian that final decisions on the tank would be made after it was in shallow water. He was not available for comment Thursday; a man who answered Missouri Dry Dock's phone had no comment.

The tank dislodged from its moorings during the March floods and wedged into a creek bed. It broke away during last week's flash flood and moved into the shipping lane, though it did not disrupt river traffic.

Barges couldn't move the tank, and a chain affixed to it on Wednesday broke.

On Thursday, Okie Moore Diving & Salvage of St. Charles, Mo., used barges, cranes and towboats to begin shifting the 70-year-old tank to the east bank of the Mississippi River. There was no response to messages left at the company's office about the success of Thursday's efforts.

Terri Snider, a registered nurse-turned-professional photographer, arrived with her Sony R1 camera. The Cape Girardeau native grew up visiting the one-time Honkers Boat Dock. She collects images of boats and had made a second trip to Red Star Access to snap pictures of the salvage operation.

"This is interesting," she said, never taking her eyes off the work being done in the water.

For Tom Weiss of Gordonville, the tank rescue was just one of many interesting sights he's encountered during regular trips to Red Star Access. On Thursday, a coal barge glided past as he mused about the old boat dock and how much he loves the river. Over the course of conversation with strangers in the Red Star gazebo, Weiss realized he'd gone to Jackson High School more than 40 years ago with the man sitting next to him, Bob Mitchell. Weiss ran track; Mitchell played football. They chatted about sports for a moment but kept their eyes trained on the river.

A muffled boom indicated the tank was resettling on the river's bottom.

Jarod Caldwell glanced at the salvage work but didn't dally. He was too busy helping load a survey boat onto a trailer for Bowen Engineering. Caldwell said he'd seen workers heading out to the recovery site at 7 a.m. Thursday and that the tank appeared to have moved a bit since he'd last seen it. The Bowen crew was on the river to take a sounding for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers near Grand Tower, Ill.

Bob Stevens visited Red Star Access during a bike ride with his son, Chad Mauk, and family friend Alicia Webb.

Mauk and Webb often ride to Red Star, but Stevens had been biking to the wall and peering at the tank in the water from the distance. Stevens said he was not interested in watching the operation for long.

"It's a definitely a hazard to ships," he said.

A woman who jokingly described herself as "the wife of a redneck" sat next to her husband at a picnic table and sipped a soft drink.

"I'm here," she said, "because I just got finished watching the grass grow."

335-6611, extension 127

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