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Runaway Barges Shut Down Several Major Bridges Into Downtown Pittsburgh

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PITTSBURGH (KDKA) -- All bridges that were shut down early Monday morning because of runaway barges on the Monongahela River have reopened to traffic.

According to the U.S. Coast Guard, 12 barges hauling coal broke loose in the early morning hours of Monday, floating down the Mon River in the dark, and striking the Liberty Bridge and the Port Authority Transit Bridge.

"They were being pushed on the Monongahela River, and broke free, and [we] had reports all the way down to Bruno Island that the barges reached,"said Lt. Shawn Simeral, with the U.S. Coast Guard.

(Photo Credit: KDKA Photojournalist Brian Smithmyer)

Pittsburgh Police acted quickly, blocking the entrances to multiple bridges around the city.

The Liberty Bridge, the Fort Pitt Bridge, Smithfield Street Bridge, West End Bridge, McKees Rocks Bridge and the Port Authority Transit Bridge were all closed to traffic during the morning rush hour. The shut downs halted T traffic on the transit bridge and traffic around the city for hours.

"I figured I'd have several other options, and I chose one, and the Liberty Bridge was closed. Then, I figured I'd try 10th Street and just got caught in gridlock, and I've been here for two hours," said motorist Craig Bauer.

Crews with the Coast Guard and PennDOT had the bridges shut down as a safety precaution just in case they were hit by the barges.

(Photo Credit: KDKA)

"The bigger concerns is if a barge would hit a bridge pier on a major river crossing, the pier could tilt and knock the top of a bridge off of the pier causing it to fall slightly or catastrophically," said Cheryl Moon-Sirianni, with PennDOT District 11.

The McKees Rocks Bridge and West End Bridge were the first spans to reopen around 7 a.m.

Then, just after 8 a.m., the Fort Pitt Bridge reopened to traffic in both directions. The Liberty Bridge reopened a short time later after crews treated the outbound side with salt due to the cold weather.

The Smithfield Street Bridge reopened just before 9 a.m.

However, heavy traffic delays remained well into the morning for commuters across the city.

It wasn't just drivers who were dealing with delays and closures. Port Authority bus and T riders dealt with travel headaches, too.

The Panhandle Bridge, which is used by light rail or T cars, was also shut down. It reopened around 10 a.m. after a contractor and engineers were brought in to inspect it because it took a direct hit from one of the barges.

Shuttle buses were brought in to get commuters from the South Hills Junction to Downtown.

The Port Authority says they hope to have service back on a regular schedule by the evening rush hour.

Shuttle buses were remaining in place to riders of the Mon Incline.

Also, many buses had to be detoured around the bridge closures all morning long.

The Coast Guard and PennDOT brought in experts to inspect the bridges and determine if they were structurally sound to reopen. River Rescue crews were taking them around.

Ten barges have been retrieved. The Coast Guard said two remain at the Smithfield Street Bridge. One is partially sunk and the second one is attached to it. It's up to the barge company to lift them out of the water.

It's up to the Coast Guard to investigate how it all happened.

"It will be an ongoing investigation for some period of time to confirm how it happened, what happened and what needs to be done about it," said Lt. Shawn Simeral.

Stay with KDKA for the latest on this developing story.

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