Excitement in Shepherdstown. Barge broke loose on Potomac flood waters, threatens bridge.
Posted by Christian Asam on Sunday, May 8, 2022
Two barges from a National Park Service project in Washington County broke loose from their moorings in the Potomac River and floated downstream through surging floodwaters over the weekend.
The larger barge, carrying an excavating vehicle, became stuck on the remnants of Dam No. 3 near Harpers Ferry, W.Va., and more than a mile west of the U.S. 340 bridge, while the smaller barge stopped below Dam. No. 4, said Christiana Hanson, a spokeswoman with the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal National Historical Park.
There were no reports of injuries or damage as of Monday morning, Hanson said.
The park service appears to have been “very lucky with this one,” Hanson said.
Any time there’s a high-water event, you just don’t know what could happen, she said.
Both barges went over Dam. No. 4. The park service was still investigating the matter and will not be able to safely inspect the dam for damage until after floodwaters have receded to a safe level, she said.
The contractor remains on-site and monitored the barges through the night, Hanson said. The contractor is formulating a plan for what to do next, she wrote in an email.
The contractor, Kiewit Corp., said in an emailed statement Monday that it was working with the National Park Service and other agencies “to address and secure the two Flexifloat modular barges … .”
“The safety of all those involved is our highest priority as we continue to work through the safest, most effective way to secure and remove them while high water levels remain challenging and problematic,” the company wrote. “This may take time as we receive guidance from local authorities on river conditions. We also continue to investigate how the materials broke free to ensure this situation doesn’t happen again.”
Kiewit’s headquarters is in Omaha, Neb., but it has offices across North America, including Hanover, Md., in Anne Arundel County.
Emergency service officials and the park service received numerous calls regarding sightings of the barges.
The barges were being used by Kiewit which is rehabilitating the historic stone retaining wall at McMahons Mill and stabilizing the towpath between the mill and Lock 42, Hanson said. The approximately $18 million project is along a 0.9 mile stretch of the towpath that frequently gets covered in water during any flood or high-water event, she said.
McMahons Mill is southwest of Downsville.
The larger barge came loose from its moorings on the Maryland side of the river on Saturday evening, but didn’t head downstream right away, Hanson said. The smaller barge broke loose Sunday afternoon and both barges started heading downstream with higher river flows, Hanson said.
Whether the barges should have been secured better will be part of the investigation, Hanson said.
The contractor’s personnel monitored both barges overnight, having lights on them, with the support of the park service and other agencies, she said.
For both barges, the pontoons were deflated a bit and spuds (big stakes) and winches were used to keep them in place where they stopped, Hanson said.
The river at Dam No. 5 at Williamsport, north of where the barges were originally moored, peaked at 21.32 feet — with a with flood stage at 21 feet — and remained around 20 feet or higher for most of Sunday, according to the National Weather Service’s website.
The Potomac at Shepherdstown, W.Va., peaked at 20 feet, well above the 15-foot flood stage, at 4:30 p.m. Sunday, according to the weather service’s website.
There is no rain in the immediate forecast until late Thursday, said meteorologist Luis Rosa with the National Weather Service’s Baltimore/Washington office. The river waters should recede quickly in the next 12 hours or so, he said.
How did officials keep tabs on the barges?
A helicopter circled the Harpers Ferry area Sunday, keeping an eye on the barges, and two or three boats were sent toward the runaway watercraft to determine if rescue crews might be able to guide them a certain way, the supervisor said.
A flood warning was posted for the area until Monday at 10 p.m., and authorities were concerned that the barges were picking up speed in rough water, a Washington County 911 supervisor said Sunday before the barges came to a stop.
A bridge that carries Md. 34 across the river from Washington County into Jefferson County at Shepherdstown, W.Va., was closed as one of the barges approached the span, Maryland State Police Cpl. Lee Cain said Sunday.
It missed the bridge but apparently hit a Norfolk Southern railroad bridge just below the Md. 34 span, Cain said. Norfolk Southern officials are expected to inspect their bridge, he said.
Norfolk Southern issued a temporary speed restriction on the bridge, returning it Sunday to normal service after the bridge was deemed safe, Norfolk Southern spokesman Connor Spielmaker wrote in an email on Monday.
Onlookers catch a glimpse outside Shepherdstown
The barges drew the attraction of onlookers at the Bavarian Inn Resort & Brewing Co., which sits above the river just outside of Shepherdstown.
Christian Asam, part of the family that owns the resort, said friends of his called him and told him about the barges that were headed toward the resort.
Asam said it was unnerving for him and his employees because Mother’s Day is a busy day for the resort, with many people coming for dinner. Asam was worried the bridge might be closed for a long period, possibly holding up guests headed to the lodge for dinner reservations.
Luckily, the bridge was only closed about 15 minutes, Asam said.
He posted a video on Facebook showing one of the barges heading toward a bank and running into trees.
“It hit the bank and you could hear them crunching and the trees coming out,” Asam said.
The next concern was where the barge was going to go as it neared a CSX railroad bridge downstream at Harpers Ferry. Attached to the bridge is a footpath that carries the Appalachian Trail across the river.
But emergency officials drew a collective sign of relief when they were told that the barge had become hung up on an island just above Harpers Ferry. Loudoun County (Va.) Sheriff’s Office deputies were stationed at the U.S. 340 bridge just below Harpers Ferry when they got word about 5 p.m. that the barge had become caught.
Deputies were prepared to shut down the bridge, which has at least eight piers extending into the water.
Rescue crews told police that they had secured the barge enough that there was not any further danger to bridges, Cain said.
Word spread through social media about the barge and people began gathering on the U.S. 340 bridge to await its arrival. Deputies told them that they would have to eventually get off the span if the barge came that way.
“I’ll run fast,” a woman said.
This article originally appeared on The Herald-Mail: Barges broke free along the Potomac River and floated downstream