Two Dozen Runaway Barges Force Bridge Closures in Pittsburgh

Barges wedged against the upstream side of the Emsworth Dam (Courtesy USACE)

Published Apr 14, 2024 2:12 PM by The Maritime Executive


On Saturday, a large-scale barge breakaway forced the temporary closure of two bridges on the Ohio River. The bridges were undamaged and reopened shortly after, authorities said. 

The Pittsburgh area experienced an unusually heavy rainfall event on Friday night, lifting the Ohio River and creating stronger currents. 26 barges broke away from a fleeting area and drifted downstream, damaging two marinas and piling up against the Emsworth Lock and Dam. 

Pittsburgh's West End Bridge was closed to traffic as a precaution, and the Brunot Island rail bridge was temporarily taken out of service. Both have reopened, according to barge operator Campbell Transportation. 

One private small-boat marina was hit and sustained "extensive damage," according to local authorities. A second marina was also hit and lost about 90 boat slips, according to the Pittsburgh Trib. 

Courtesy USACE

25 of the barges have been relocated. Nine were pressed up against the Emsworth dam, four made it past the dam, and one has sunk. Out of the 26 loose barges, all but three were loaded with dry bulk cargoes, including coal and fertilizer.

The U.S. Coast Guard is the lead agency for the response and the follow-up investigation. The cause of the breakaway is not currently known, but river currents were unusually high at the time of the casualty.  

Barge breakaways are a routine occurrence on the inland waterways, but rarely result in serious damage to bridge infrastructure; taken individually, each barge has a minute fraction of the displacement of a modern container ship like the Dali, the 10,000 TEU boxship that destroyed the Francis Scott Key Bridge last month. Many inland bridges have also been upgraded with protective infrastructure to defend against the foreseeable risk of a barge tow strike.