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Coast Guard Investigating Cause Of Loose Barges, Bridge Closures; Fines Could Be Coming

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PITTSBURGH (KDKA) – It wasn't just the coldest morning of the year so far on Monday, for many it was the worst commute.

A dozen barges broke loose on the Monongahela River, closing six bridges for the morning commute.

(Photo Credit: KDKA)

On Monday evening, the company that owns the barges and the Coast Guard are telling different stories about what happened.

The tow boat the 'Brenda L Murray II' sat on the southern bank of the Monongahela River on Monday afternoon with 14 of its 16 barges. The remaining two barges sat against the piers of the Smithfield Street Bridge. One of the two was sinking.

Just after 4:30 a.m. Monday in the fog shrouded waters of the Mon River, the Coast Guard said the Murray's barges were involved in an "allision" with the Liberty Bridge. An allision is a nautical term for running into a stationary object. Lt. Shawn Simeral is the spokesman for the US Coast Guard Pittsburgh office and says, "as a result of that allusion, 12 barges broke free from the tow."

As the 'Brenda L Murray' and several other tow boats chased down the fully loaded coal barges, concern arose over the downriver bridges.

PennDOT District 11 Executive Cheryl Moon-Sirianni says the Liberty Bridge was immediately closed and, "it was dark we didn't know where they were going so we had to take precautions on the other four state owned bridges."

The Liberty, Smithfield, Fort Pitt, West End, McKees Rocks and Port Authority Panhandle bridges were all closed.

The six bridges were closed at the beginning of the morning rush hour leaving drivers like Craig Bauer looking for an alternative.

"Liberty was closed so I figured I'd try 10th and just got caught in gridlock and I've been here for two hours," one motorist said this morning.

Moon-Sirianni says closing the bridges was critical because a fully-loaded coal barge hitting a bridge can cause, "a catastrophic failure to begin with. We don't like to think that way but if a very large barge hits a pier the pier could tilt and the superstructure could move from the bearings and literally drop. It could drop a few inches, it could drop significantly."

PennDOT's bridge inspectors were called to the river and taken out on boats to look for damage. Five hours after it started, all the bridges were declared safe and reopened. But not before causing incredible gridlock and some accidents.

While the Coast Guard says the barges hit the Liberty Bridge and then broke loose the parent company of the 'Brenda L Murray II' says in a statement: "Murray American Transportation, Inc., confirms that a tow boat, the M/V Brenda L. Murray, II, was affected by strong river currents in the early morning hours of January 21, 2019, allowing loaded coal barges to become free, and some of those barges reportedly struck bridges in Pittsburgh. The barges have all been secured at this time. We are working with the United States Coast Guard and other state and federal regulatory agencies to investigate this matter, and to determine the cause of the barge breakaway."

The National Weather Service says the Mon River was feeling the effects of the weekend rain. The river downtown was running higher than normal and flowing at about five or six times its normal speed at the time of the incident.

Simeral says, "There were some conditions but not out of the ordinary that our mariners don't normally deal with. The investigation will be ongoing and they will try to determine what caused it, what can be prevented and what we can do to make it a safer port."

Once the investigation is completed, the investigators will determine what action will be taken. Simeral said there is no way to know how long the investigation will take before adding that penalties could range "anything from nothing to warnings to fines."

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