By Jim Hannah
The Cincinnati Enquirer
COVINGTON - The U.S. Coast Guard launched an investigation Wednesday after several out-of-control barges went on their own down the rain-swollen Ohio River and crashed into the supports of two bridges connecting Ohio and Kentucky.
Inspectors from the Kentucky Department of Transportation determined the Tuesday evening crashes on the Ohio River caused no damage to the bridges - the heavily traveled Brent Spence Bridge and the pedestrian bridge between Newport and Cincinnati nicknamed the Purple People Bridge.
A tow of 13 barges carrying coal and gypsum was traveling downriver shortly after 9 p.m. when six of the barges slammed into the Purple People Bridge, said U.S. Coast Guard Lt. H. Rosell.
The force of the crash caused two of the barges to break away from the main tow, Rosell said, sending them racing down the Ohio River. The barges missed the historic Roebling Suspension Bridge and the Clay Wade Bailey Bridge but made a thundering boom as they hit a Brent Spence Bridge pylon.
Officials with B&H Towing of Paducah, who were towing the barges for Memco Barge Line of Chesterfield, Mo., said high water contributed to the crash.
"Cincinnati harbor is a dread of river pilots when the water level gets up there because of the bend in the river," said Buck Lay, president of the towing company. "We have had good luck navigating that section of the river - until last night. This is the first time we have hit a Cincinnati bridge."
Lay compared navigating a tow through Cincinnati in high water to driving a car on an icy road. "It's just hard to keep it under control," he said.
The Ohio River was above 50 feet at the time the barges came loose. Flood stage in Cincinnati is 52 feet.
Rosell said marine investigators will check the crew for drug and alcohol abuse - a routine procedure - and look at environmental factors such as the high water and swift currents. The investigation should be completed in two to four weeks.
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