Pittsburgh bridges close after 26 barges break loose, float uncontrolled down Ohio River

Pittsburgh officials closed two bridges after more than two dozen barges broke loose late Friday and floated uncontrolled down the Ohio River, some plunging over local dams.

Around 11:30 p.m., city officials responded to 26 barges moving downriver. Three of the barges were empty, and 23 carried cargo such as coal and one carried fertilizer, though there were no hazardous materials on board, Pittsburgh Department of Public Safety and U.S. Coast Guard officials said in a news release.

One barge, containing coal, still hasn't been found as of Saturday afternoon, Carol Vernon, a spokesperson for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Pittsburgh District, told USA TODAY. The Army Corps believes the missing barge sank, but officials can't start looking until river conditions change, she said. The Ohio River near Pittsburgh has experienced flooding in the last day.

"The most important thing is not necessarily how fast we can recover these barges, but how safely it can be done,” she said.

There are no reports of any barges colliding with bridges, nor is there known pollution at this time, U.S. Coast Guard Lt. j.g. Eyobe Mills told USA TODAY.

Mariners are being advised to steer clear of the area until all barges have been recovered, he said. The navigation channel won't reopen until water levels have lowered, Vernon said.

There have been no injuries, but Peggy’s Harbor, on the Ohio River’s northern bank at Pittsburgh, sustained extensive damage.

City public safety officials closed a rail bridge to Brunot Island, about 2 miles west of downtown Pittsburgh. Farther west, the McKees Rocks Bridge was temporarily closed out of caution. Both reopened Saturday morning. Initially, city officials said the West End Bridge had closed, but they clarified it was only the Brunot Island and McKees Rocks bridges.

“They may or may not come into contact with sub-structure, but we are not willing to take the risk,” the McKees Rocks Police Department said in a social media post.

On Saturday afternoon, the Army Corps of Engineers said in a social media post that it was inspecting facilities for damage and making sure employees and barge crews were safe.

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Barge incident comes weeks after Baltimore bridge collapse

The bridge closures come just over two weeks after a large cargo vessel near Baltimore lost power and hit the Francis Scott Key Bridge, causing it to collapse. The bridge collapse spurred concern about the safety of other U.S. bridges. Pittsburgh is a historically industrial Pennsylvania city known for its iconic bridges that swoop over rivers in and around the city.

So far, 11 barges have been located and pinned along the riverbank by Brunot Island and were being held by a tugboat, city officials said. Fourteen continued downriver.

Nine went over the Emsworth Dam, about 4 miles downstream from Brunot Island. As of Saturday afternoon, seven barges came to rest at the dam, the Army Corps said. An empty barge sank, and another broke away because of river conditions.

Four made it beyond the Dashields Dam, located roughly 7 miles from the Emsworth Dam. They were retrieved and secured by tugboat, the Army Corps said.

The missing barge is thought to be between the two dams, according to Vernon of the Army Corps.

Pittsburgh officials said the barges are owned or operated by the Campbell Transportation Company, located just downstream along the Ohio River from the McKees Rocks Bridge. A call and message to the company was not returned Saturday.

Late Friday night, the National Weather Service extended a flood warning for the Ohio River near Pittsburgh. Around midnight, river water reached 25 feet, beyond the flood stage.

Navigation on the river had stopped because of high water levels. The cause for the barges going loose remains unclear, though the Army Corps believes high water levels played a factor. The Coast Guard said its priority remains on the unaccounted for vessel.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Barges break loose, float uncontrolled down Ohio River; bridges closed