Pittsburgh Reopens Bridge After 26 Barges Break Loose on Ohio River


The authorities in Pittsburgh reopened a bridge that had been closed as a precaution after 26 barges broke loose on the Ohio River late on Friday, drifting miles downstream and damaging a marina.

There was a risk that the barges could come into contact with the “substructure” of the McKees Rocks Bridge, the McKees Rocks Police Department said in a statement early on Saturday. The department said hours later that it had reopened the bridge.

“The police department closed the bridge until our bridge unit was able to inspect the structure,” said Steve Cowan, a spokesman for the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation. “They found no damage.”

There were no reports of the barges striking any other structures, Mr. Cowan said.

It was unclear early Saturday why the barges had broken free. Three of the barges were empty, but 23 were loaded with dry cargo like coal, the city said, adding that no hazardous materials were on board. There were no reported injuries.

Abigail Gardner, a spokeswoman for Allegheny County, said only one of the barges was unaccounted for by early Saturday. The missing barge had probably sunk, she said.

“We have a lot of coal barge traffic,” Ms. Gardner said, adding, “It’s obviously not great when coal sinks in your river, but it’s not that uncommon here.”

The barges are owned and operated by Campbell Transportation Company. A company representative did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The city of Pittsburgh initially said that the West End Bridge and the rail bridge to nearby Brunot Island had been closed, but a spokeswoman for the city, Cara Cruz, said in an email on Saturday that only the McKees Rocks Bridge was closed.

The bridge closure came just weeks after a container ship struck the Key Bridge in Baltimore, causing it to collapse, killing six workers, disrupting a critical transportation link and prompting a huge salvage operation.

That collapse, on March 26, raised concerns about the structural deficiencies of many major bridges across the country.

In Pittsburgh, the loose barges caused “extensive damage” to a marina near Brunot Island, the city said.

At least 11 barges were found and pinned against a riverbank near the island and held by a tugboat, the city said. But others continued downstream, with six going over the Emsworth Dam, about five miles farther.

Efforts to recover the barges had not yet begun, said Lt. Eyobe Mills, a waterways safety manager for the U.S. Coast Guard, adding that mariners had been advised to avoid a 13-mile stretch of the Ohio River until the missing barge had been located.

The authorities began searching for the barges after the first report came around 11:25 p.m. on Friday that several were adrift, according to a shift commander at Allegheny County’s 911 center.

Barges become loose from tugboats at least once a year in the Pittsburgh region, and regularly strike bridges, but none of the crashes have caused major structural damage, Stephen Shanley, Allegheny County’s public works director, told The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.

The McKees Rocks Bridge opened in 1931 and stretches more than a mile across the Ohio River.

As part of the Blue Belt, the innermost of several roads that loop around Pittsburgh, the bridge connects Pittsburgh and the borough of McKees Rocks. About 25,000 vehicles cross it daily, according to Federal Highway Administration data from 2023.

A flood warning was in effect until Saturday evening in Allegheny County, which includes the Ohio River in Pittsburgh, where water levels had risen above the flood stage, 25 feet, by early Saturday, according to the National Weather Service.

Emily Schmall contributed reporting.

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