Bridge vs. barge

Friday, May 31, 2002

Missouri Department of Transportation officials say crossing the Mississippi River bridge at Cape Girardeau shouldn't be considered a death-defying act. They insist the 74-year-old, two-lane bridge is sturdy and won't be buckled by runaway barges.

"The main piers, which are out in the channel, are designed to withstand a pretty good hit from a barge," MoDOT district engineer Scott Meyer said Thursday.

He said it's unlikely that a barge crash could collapse a section of a bridge as occurred Sunday at an Interstate 40 bridge over the Arkansas River in Oklahoma, killing 14 people.

Meyer said the new Bill Emerson Memorial Bridge, scheduled for completion next year, will be even safer. It will have a 1,150-foot-wide navigational channel compared to the current 672-foot channel.

MoDOT officials said the new cable-supported bridge will be built to withstand a collision from a 1,200-foot-long tow. Barge industry officials estimate such a tow would have 30 or more barges.

The new span will be able to withstand a major earthquake, with a magnitude of 8.5. The current bridge wasn't built to withstand earthquakes.

Over the past 20 years, the Southeast Missourian has reported on at least 17 towboat and barge accidents on the Mississippi River near Cape Girardeau and the Illinois communities of Cairo and Thebes, including collisions with bridge spans and vessel-to-vessel mishaps. Police closed the Mississippi River bridge last in December 2000 when runaway barges were a threat to hit bridge supports.

The U.S. Coast Guard, which handles river accidents, didn't have statistics on barge-related accidents available Thursday.

The Oklahoma bridge collapse occurred when a two-barge towboat struck an approach-span pier. Authorities said Joe Dedmon, a 61-year-old towboat pilot, blacked out briefly and wasn't able to avoid the collision.

"It wasn't a runaway barge that got loose," Meyer said. "It was two barges with the force of a tug pushing them," he said.

Meyer said barges often collide with bridge piers in mid-river, but bridge builders don't envision barges being pushed into approach-span piers, which are placed closer to land. Bridges are designed to handle normal river-traffic collisions, not the unusual accidents such as in Oklahoma, he said.

Bruce Engert, general manager of Missouri Barge Line in Cape Girardeau, said at least 150 barges a day are moved upstream and downstream past the city. Barge-bridge collisions aren't unusual anywhere along the river, he said.

Engert said bridge piers on the Mississippi don't crumble when struck.

"These piers are made to withstand it," he said.

Over the years, the Thebes railroad bridge has been struck repeatedly by wayward barges as towboat captains have tried to negotiate this difficult passage in the river. The bridge has never collapsed or needed major repairs.

"It is not an easy stretch," said Lt. j.g. Patrick Mounsey with the U.S. Coast Guard office in Paducah, Ky.

Mounsey said barge-bridge collisions typically do little damage to the spans.

"Rarely do they hit a bridge real hard," he said.

In the aftermath of the deadly Oklahoma bridge collapse, Mounsey said barge safety shouldn't be a concern. Towboats and barges aren't endangering bridges and motorists.

"They definitely aren't ticking time bombs," he said.

mbliss@semissourian.com

335-6611, extension 123

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