Barge breaks loose, hits bridge on Severn

Traffic is tied up more than two hours until span is declared safe


An unmanned barge floated out of control yesterday and crashed into the Severn River Bridge north of Annapolis, halting traffic over a key link with the Eastern Shore for more than two hours while the barge was untangled and inspectors determined the span was structurally sound.

After receiving a 911 call about a 100-foot-long barge adrift near Luce Creek, the Coast Guard contacted Maryland State Police, who stopped traffic from using the six-lane bridge at 10:25 a.m.

Seven minutes later, according to Coast Guard logs, the barge - owned by a Stevensville company - hit one of the bridge's supports, knocking out a piece of concrete.

"It's like a freight train when that barge starts moving - it's hard to stop," said George Ward, the Annapolis deputy harbormaster, who used his patrol boat to keep the barge from floating free again as officials waited for a tugboat.

Investigators are trying to determine what caused the barge, with its heavy load of rocks, to come free of its moorings near Luce Creek on the river's Annapolis side and drift a few hundred yards into the bridge. The owner of the barge - Langenfelder Marine - did not return calls for comment.

No one was injured, but thousands were inconvenienced, stuck in their cars for hours yesterday as U.S. 50 turned into a parking lot and the few alternate routes were packed with those searching for ways around the snarl. About 126,000 vehicles a day use the Severn River Bridge, about five miles west of the Bay Bridge.

In addition to U.S. 50, the bridge also carries U.S. 301 and Route 2 over the Severn.

One popular alternative - the nearby crossing at the Naval Academy Bridge - was also closed intermittently yesterday as authorities feared the barge could come loose again and smack into that two-lane span.

"The [Severn River] bridge - down in this community - that's our Main Street," said H. Winship Wheatley, transportation supervisor for the Anne Arundel County schools.

Ambulances had to be diverted. Lobbyists and some lawmakers had trouble getting to the State House, where the General Assembly is in session. "A lot of people missed hearings and were very angry when they got here," said W. Minor Carter, a lobbyist who does work for the city of Annapolis.

Afternoon classes at the Center for Applied Technology South in Edgewater were canceled for students who would be coming from Annapolis-area high schools because of traffic tie-ups. School officials recommended that some parents pick up their children if possible because of lingering problems on U.S. 50.

As motorists sat in traffic, Ward boarded his 25-foot aluminum patrol boat at Annapolis City Dock and motored up the Severn toward to the barge.

Two Department of Natural Resources boats, a Maryland State Police boat, and a Coast Guard boat circled the barge - which appeared firmly wedged between two pilings.

Nevertheless, high winds a few minutes after noon caused the barge to break free from the bridge.

Ward throttled his engine and steered bow first into the barge to pin it against one of the pilings.

The patrol boat shuddered when its flat bow hit the side of the barge. The patrol boat pitched in the waves and the 25- to 30-knot gusts, but Ward held it steady.

"Sit down," he ordered several passengers. "I don't want us breaching."

Meanwhile, several workers with bright-orange life jackets boarded the barge and, using a thick braided rope, secured it to a piling.

Ten minutes later, two tugboats came chugging up the Severn.

The bigger of the two - Sharps Island - steered toward the barge and tied up to it. Black smoke billowed from its exhaust, and the water churned below it as the tug pulled the barge, swung around and safely pushed the barge down the Severn.

The bridge reopened at 12:48 p.m., after inspectors with the State Highway Administration were able to see the damage up close.

The damage was cosmetic, and are no immediate plans to fix it, said Chuck Gischlar, a highway administration spokesman. He said a concrete patch will eventually be put in place. "It's not going to get any worse," he said.

Gischlar defended the agency's decision to close the bridge, saying safety is the priority. "A fully loaded barge strikes the bridge - you didn't know [if the damage was serious] until you could remove the barge and examine it," he said.

Traffic was back to normal by the afternoon rush hour, he said.

Lanisha Simms' commute to Anne Arundel Community College usually takes a few minutes. Yesterday morning, it was more like 45.

Still, the 19-year-old made it - only to find a note on the classroom door saying class was canceled. Her teacher, it turns out, was stuck in traffic, too.

"So I just went to Old Navy to shop," she said.

Devon Dodson, vice president of the Greater Baltimore Committee, said he was on his way to Annapolis when he heard news of the bridge closing on the radio and saw the mobile warning signs.

Because he knows his way around the back roads of Annapolis, he said, he was able to avoid the mess.

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