PITTSBURGH - Twelve barges loaded with coal broke loose early Monday morning on the Monongahela River in Pittsburgh, forcing the closure of several bridges in the city, officials said.
The U.S. Coast Guard said the barges broke loose after a towboat hit the Liberty Bridge about 4:30 a.m.
The West End, McKees Rocks, Fort Pitt, Liberty and Smithfield Street bridges were closed, but they have since reopened.
“Anytime barges break free and they're loaded, that means they're heavier. That means they can do a little more damage when they hit things,” Lt. Shawn Simeral, of the U.S. Coast Guard Marine Safety Unit Pittsburgh, said. "They're going to do an investigation into how it was caused and make sure we find out all of the information involved."
All 12 barges have been accounted for, the Coast Guard said.
As of 5 p.m., two of the barges -- one of which is partially submerged -- were not secured, but they were resting at the base of the Smithfield Street Bridge. At this point, the U.S. Coast Guard believes there's no immediate concern that the coal might spill.
"They're hopper barges, which means they're loaded on top so the cargo isn't totally secured in the vessel itself. The only real spilling of coal would happen if they sink," Simeral said. "They were being pushed as part of the tow. There were 12 loaded coal barges that broke free."
The U.S. Coast Guard will not be releasing the name of the company responsible until its investigation is complete.
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Bridge inspection crews worked to determine whether any of the bridges sustained damage before reopening them, Pennsylvania Department of Transportation officials said.
"Liberty, we were told, was hit but we weren't sure if the others were hit. So we went to the one that had damage first plus the ones that have the most traffic," said Lou Ruzzi, a bridge engineer for PennDOT.
According to the Port Authority of Allegheny County, the Panhandle Bridge took a direct hit from one of the loose barges. The bridge reopened after a contractor inspected it to determine whether it was safe to use for light rail service, which had been suspended.
Our engineers have determined that the Panhandle Bridge did, indeed, take a direct hit from a loose barge. We’re having a contractor come out now to tell us if it’s safe to use for the rail system. Again, safety is our #1 concern.— Port Authority PGH (@PGHtransit) January 21, 2019
After digging through previous incident reports, 11 Investigates found this incident wasn't isolated.
The U.S. Coast Guard responded to barges breaking loose on the Ohio and Monongahela rivers last January, April and May, with each incident forcing temporary closures and delays for bridge and river traffic.
Ruzzi told 11 Investigates they plan on discussing safety options with the Coast Guard that could limit incidents like these.
"I don't know what happened in this case. Maybe there's an opportunity to make those moorings higher, I don't know. But that's something we're going to at least ask," he said.
A spokesman for the Coast Guard told Channel 11 they are always concerned with how vessels on waterways are secured.
It's unclear how long an investigation will take.
The Glenwood, Birmingham, Hot Metal, South 10th Street and Interstate 79 Neville Island bridges remained open Monday morning and were able to be used as alternate routes for drivers, according to PennDOT.
However, bumper-to-bumper traffic was still a problem. East Carson Street was backed up for miles, and traffic was at a crawl along Interstate 376 for hours.
No one was hurt.
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