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U.S. 80 bridge struck multiple times by runaway barges

VICKSBURG — The U.S. 80 bridge over the Mississippi River was hit multiple times late last week after 33 of 35 grain barges broke loose from their tow and some hit a pier in the middle of the span.

“It’s dark on the video, and I can’t tell exactly what’s going on,” bridge superintendent Herman Smith said after the strike.

The Vicksburg Post reports the Jeffrey G. Stover was pushing south when the break occurred and pier 4 was hit. The cause of the strike was not evident from surveillance video, he said. Officials haven’t determined how many times the pier was struck.

Train traffic was halted after the barges broke loose and did not resume until the pier was inspected by engineers from Gulf Engineers and Consultants of Baton Rouge, Smith said. About 665 train cars daily usually cross the bridge — the only rail crossing between Memphis and Baton Rouge.

The Jeffrey G. Stover is owned by AEP in Cape Girardeau, Mo., Smith said. An AEP spokesman did not return calls for comment.

All of the scattered barges had been recovered by midmorning, said Albert Smith, fleet manager at Ergon Marine and Industrial Supply, which routinely directs roundup and recovery in river accidents. The last block of barges was recovered about 8:45 a.m. about 12 miles south of the bridge near LeTourneau landing, he said.

None of the barges sank.

“We’ve got everything caught and pushed up to the bank,” Smith said. “Everything is accounted for.”

Two barges on the tow were heavily damaged and will take days to repair, Smith said.

The Mississippi River level at Vicksburg yesterday morning was 33.3 feet; flood stage is 43 feet.

The strike was the first one this year, Herman Smith said. The last recorded strike was July 7.

On March 23, 2011, a soybean-laden barge lodged next to pier 3 after 30 southbound barges, driven by a swollen Mississippi River, broke loose from a Marquette Transportation tow and scattered, some hitting the U.S. 80 bridge, some hitting the I-20 bridge and some floating to near LeTourneau landing before being rounded up. The river was at 41.6 feet at the time.

After 22 days of being hung up on the pier, the barge was broken free April 13 by Big River Shipbuilding and Salvage. Nearly a year later, the U.S. Coast Guard has not released an official cause of the wreck.

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