Sunday, June 02, 2002

Bridge collapse on Ohio unlikely

By Tom O'Neill
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Nearly four football fields long and requiring a mile to stop, the coal barge crawled past downtown Cincinnati, under seven bridges on a notoriously winding two-mile stretch. It did so safely, disappearing downriver. This is daily life on the Ohio.

        With increasing commercial traffic, the risk of a barge hitting a bridge support, or pier, is heightened. But since 1998, only four barges have done so locally, according to Coast Guard records.

        There were no injuries and no significant damage. Most were scrapes, but all require reporting. None was head-on.

        When a barge struck three weak pier supports on the Arkansas River in Oklahoma a week ago today, it caused a 500-foot section of the bridge to collapse, sending 14 vehicle riders to their deaths.

        Experts say that's very unlikely to happen here.

        One reason, experts say, the bridge supports in this stretch of the Ohio are significantly bigger.

        “A barge has never won a battle with an Ohio River bridge,” said Allan Frank, a Kentucky Transportation Cabinet bridge designer.

        The most recent encounter, however — 2:30 a.m. May 16 at the Southern Railroad Bridge, just west of downtown — prompted a Coast Guard policy change in how parked barges are configured near bridges.

        Federal safety officials this week called for strengthening piers, but Mr. Frank said Friday a guideline change might not affect Greater Cincinnati bridges. He's not sure it should, or even if it's necessary.

        It's the barge that loses.

        On May 22, 1974, a barge carrying 160,000 gallons of sulfuric acid sank in the Ohio River after hitting the L&N Bridge pier.

        Of Greater Cincinnati's seven non-railroad bridges within the Interstate 275 beltway, the diameter of their river-level supports ranges from 15 to 26 feet, according to cabinet records. The 135-year-old Roebling Suspension Bridge has supports 40 feet in diameter but they are H-shaped.

        The agency designs and maintains most local Ohio River bridges, including both on I-275, the Roebling, Daniel Carter Beard or “Big Mac”, Taylor-Southgate, Brent Spence and Clay Wade Bailey. All meet existing standards, Mr. Frank said.

        “We did strengthening several years ago. We could go back and reanalyze, that could happen, but realistically, the biggest barge on the Ohio at full load probably couldn't take down a bridge.”

        In the past two years, two pleasure boaters have crashed locally, killing three. One boat hit a parked barge, the other struck another boat, the Coast Guard said.

        Nationally, more than 100 people have been killed when boats struck bridge piers since 1980, when an ocean ship struck the Sunshine Skyway Bridge in Tampa Bay, collapsing the span and killing 35. That crash, which led to new impact standards for piers, and the Oklahoma tragedy account for nearly half of the barge-bridge deaths in the past 22 years. Tampa's tragedy involved a ship so large it could never navigate the Ohio. And there are stark differences between the Arkansas and Ohio rivers, according to sources in the Coast Guard, two local barge companies and several officials at the Kentucky Cabinet.

        The key differences:

        • The barge operator in Oklahoma lost control, possibly when he blacked out, and struck piers 300 feet off the navigation channel.

        • The piers were just 4 feet in diameter, unprepared for a barge strike near the river bank.

        • Even the bridges on the Ohio that have weaker supports near the river bank are no less than 13 feet in diameter — the east I-275 Combs-Hehl Bridge, near Coney Island. And most such “tail spans” would only be at risk during heavy flooding.

        “The Ohio River is both a blessing and a curse,” said KTC director of operations Chuck Knowles.

        “It's a great economic development source, provides jobs, but on the other hand, it requires bridges to get from state to state, and all are susceptible to some kind of accident. “That we haven't had a higher number of incidents,” Mr. Knowles said, “that's a credit to the tow industry and the Coast Guard.”

David Hammond, vice president of Edgewood, Ky.-based Inland Marine Services, said the cost of a crash, both in liability and lost product, is a big safety motivator.

        “Any structure has to be contended with,” said Scott Noble, general manager at Ohio River Co., which transports by barge. “And we have to live with our safety record.”

        One aspect of the Oklahoma crash, however, troubles Coast Guard Lt. Commander Robert Bowen: Large barges on the Ohio require two masters, or pilots, but some small-route “fleet” barges do not. Typically, they have the master and one deck hand for whom no pilot training is mandated. There is no regulated Plan B if a lone master is incapacitated, as was the case in Oklahoma, Lt. Bowen said.

        Most likely, the tow's deck hand could shut it down and control it, while communicating with the Guard and the barge company by radio.

        In the 200-mile stretch of the Ohio under the jurisdiction of the Cincinnati-based Guard station, there is a daily average of 16 barge tows on long-term trips that have two masters. Normally, they sleep aboard the vessels, taking turns.

        There are about 28 fleet tows daily pushing smaller barges, Lt. Bowen said.


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