Breakaway Barges Wreak Havoc on Morning Commute

Pittsburgh Tribune-Review
20 January 2012
By Chris Togneri

Coast Guard investigators are trying to determine whether equipment failure, river currents, weather or human error could have caused a chain reaction of barge collisions that rattled two bridges, halted traffic on the Monongahela River and delayed morning commuters Thursday.

"When a barge gets loose, it's bad," said Cmdr. Richard Timme of the Coast Guard in Pittsburgh, noting that each barge contained 1,500 tons of coal and held the equivalent of 60 semis loaded with cargo. "There is huge, huge mass and energy behind those barges."

The Coast Guard closed a portion of the Monongahela to traffic, at least until the sunken barge is removed, Timme said. The closure could last days.

Extended closures are costly to tow companies and those awaiting cargo, said Jim McCarville, executive director of the Port of Pittsburgh Commission. It costs about $500 an hour in fuel and manpower for tow companies to move cargo, he said, and if vessels wait at locks, the cost can escalate.

The Marge McFarlin towboat, owned by Ingram Barge Co. of Nashville, was pushing 12 barges loaded with coal from West Virginia to U.S. Steel's Clairton Works, Timme said. Two barges came loose around 2 a.m. near the Liberty Bridge, he said.

"Something happened," Timme said. "Whether it lost power, a line snapped or it struck the bridge, we don't know."

Ingram spokesman Keel Hunt said the company is investigating but would not release information on the captain or crew. He said the captain "alertly" notified Coast Guard officials of the breakaway barges and corralled the others.

Nobody was injured, and there was no threat of river pollution, Timme said. Coast Guard officials ordered drug and alcohol testing of the towboat crew.

One loose barge drifted downstream and sank near the Fort Duquesne Incline. Crews from River Salvage of Neville Island began work to raise it.

The other loose barge struck a moored barge filled with sand at Frank Bryan Inc., a South Side construction materials supply business, Timme said. The sand barge broke loose, and both barges drifted to the Smithfield Street Bridge. The sand barge crashed sideways into a pier, and the coal barge wedged against it.

Crews spent hours unloading the barges before moving them back to the Frank Bryan facility.

Bridge inspectors temporarily closed the Liberty, Panhandle, Smithfield Street and Fort Pitt bridges, to check for damage.

PennDOT spokesman Jim Struzzi said they found no visible damage on the Liberty Bridge, and officials believe the barge that sank did not strike the Fort Pitt Bridge. The sand barge scraped a Smithfield Street Bridge pier, but did not cause structural damage, Struzzi said.

Port Authority spokesman Jim Ritchie said one barge scuffed a pier of the Panhandle Bridge, which carries T light-rail cars across the river, and the Port Authority transferred T riders to shuttle buses at South Hills Junction while the bridge was closed. The T carries about 25,000 passengers a day, split between morning and afternoon rush hours, Ritchie said.

Chris Togneri can be reached at or 412-380-5632.