Burning crude oil barge on Mississippi River corralled; fire being fought

Published 4:23 pm Friday, February 2, 2007

A barge carrying crude oil hit a railroad bridge over the Mississippi River and caught fire Thursday night.

A U.S. Coast Guard spokesman said there were no injuries and no reports of crewmen in the water after the 9 p.m. accident.

A flaming barge was corralled and pushed against the eastern bank around 11:30 p.m. about 12 miles downstream from Vicksburg, Coast Guard officials and area authorities said, and another vessel was fighting the fire.

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It is unclear if oil spilled into the river, but environmental officials from Mississippi and Louisiana were on scene assessing the situation. A witness said it appeared oil was burning in the water, but darkness and fog made it difficult for officials to evaluate.

Authorities closed both the railroad bridge and the Interstate 20 bridge that crosses the river at the same point, but have since reopened I-20.

Pat Ingram, a Vicksburg architect who got pictures of the fire, said he could feel the heat from the blaze though it was a quarter-mile or more away.

“Everything around us had a red glow on it,” Ingram said.

“It was huge, it was just so huge.”

Lt. Leon McClain, public affairs officer with the Coast Guard’s Sector Lower Mississippi River, said a team of investigators was on its way to the fire from Greenville, Miss.

A security zone was set up between mile markers 444 and 422. The river remained open, but the Coast Guard warned vessels to stay clear.

Lt. Davey Barnette of the Vicksburg Police Department said the barges are owned by Florida Marine and that local private companies were assisting officials.

Sheriff Martin Pace of Warren County said it’s not unusual for barge floats, which are pushed downriver by tugboats, to hit a bridge.

“What’s different here is it caught fire,” he said.

The captain of the tug John Roberts called in the accident as soon as it happened, authorities said. The tug was pushing four barges downstream at the time in a river rising because of recent rains.

“The water is high and you’re going to have a strong a current down there in that area,” said Operation Specialist First Class Todd Betteridge of the Coast Guard in Memphis.

Three of the four barges were quickly pushed against the bank by local boats and suffered minor damage. A fourth immediately caught fire and began to float out of control downstream through a populated area south of Vicksburg.

Pace said no one other than the crew was in danger as the barge floated downstream. Pictures show flames completely engulfing the vessel.

The John Roberts caught the barge about 2 1/2 hours later and pushed it against the bank.

“Everyone is safe, which is the most important thing,” Pace said. “The barge that is ablaze will burn itself out and (the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality) and the Coast Guard will make their assessment from an environmental impact standpoint. But a lot of that will have to be done in the light of day.”

McClain said he could not address whether charges will be brought if negligence is involved.

“We’ll investigate, gather evidence, evaluate it and take it from there,” he said. “While the investigation is going on, I don’t want to speculate what will be done until the investigators are actually able to assess the evidence they have.”