Ohio River Returns to Normal After Barge Chaos Amid Torrential Flooding


The ever-vibrant pulse of maritime activities on the Ohio River in Pittsburgh regained its rhythm on Tuesday as the U.S. Coast Guard lifted a four-day restriction. The dramatic halt came in the wake of an incident where 26 marooned barges were the unwitting playthings of the formidable current, set loose and scattered by torrential flooding.

Lt. Eyobe Mills provided affirmation of the river’s reopening, emphasizing, “The river is open. The Ohio River is open.” This statement served as a siren song to vessels that had anxiously awaited permission to once again navigate the waters north of the city.

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The incident began unfolding late on the previous Friday when the restless river unshackled dozens of barges from their anchoring points. The renegade vessels, aimlessly adrift, became battering rams against an unsuspecting bridge and annihilated a pair of unsuspecting marinas. Tuesday saw the locating of one barge, now resting at the bottom of the river, through the acuity of sonar technology. This detection was the key to reestablishing river navigation.

Lt. Mills’s words carried an undertone of caution, advising, “They can transit, they just need to be cautious.” This was underscored by the ongoing operations of Campbell Transportation Company Inc., the operator that owned the rogue barges. Recovery efforts were in full swing with the extraction of five of seven barges embarrassingly beached against the Emsworth Locks and Dam. Work was still required to disentangle two remaining vessels and another which had lodged itself upstream.

Gary Statler, the company’s senior vice president for river operations, issued a statement focused on prioritizing safety. He said, “We will continue to implement our recovery plan for the remaining affected vessels, taking into consideration the safety of the recovery workers, the public and the barges at all times.”

In a twist of irony, all but three of the runaway barges were heavily laden with coal, fertilizer, and other dry cargo, items not at all compatible with their aquatic adventure. Statler attributed their breakaway to the potent currents whipped up by the floodwaters.

The torrential rains saw the river levels skyrocket and then plummet just as sharply. Matt Brown, the chief of Allegheny County Department of Emergency Services, acknowledged the perilous situation. “It’s not very often this happens, but we know that’s when the biggest threat level is. That’s the time they’ve really got to watch, hour by hour, because you’ve got to make adjustments,” he said on Tuesday.

Despite the chaos, there were no reports of injuries, and after a thorough inspection, the Sewickley Bridge emerged unscathed, much to the relief of motorists when it reopened to the public on Saturday.

Campbell Transportation, based in Canonsburg, Pennsylvania, boasts over 1,100 barges that collectively move about 60 million tons of dry and liquid cargo annually. This unfortunate incident comes on the heel of an unconnected yet hauntingly similar tragedy in Baltimore, where the collapse of the Francis Scott Key Bridge claimed the lives of six construction workers.