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Memphis District assists Coast Guard in search for sunken barge

Published Feb. 28, 2020
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IN THE PHOTO, this sonar scan clearly shows the outline of a towboat. Use of the latest equipment of its type enables our technicians and engineers to make well-informed decisions that maintain a safe navigation channel in the river.

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IN THIS PHOTO, another breakaway barge from the 30-barge tow. Also loaded with grain, it is half sunk and in the navigation channel. Coast Guard officials were able to fully open the river to northbound tows but southbound tows can only transit the area during daylight hours.

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IN THE PHOTO, Survey 1 docked and ready to go

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IN THE PHOTO, here’s what our crews were really looking for; the missing barge loaded with corn is laying on its side again a bridge pier.

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IN THIS PHOTO, the Memphis District's survey boat "Survey 1" underway at high speed.

Two Memphis District river survey boats and their crews recently aided the Coast Guard by responding to an incident on the Mississippi River. In the process, they found more than they expected. Here’s how the story unfolded.

A little before 8:30 p.m. on Feb. 24, a commercial towboat pushing 30 barges loaded with grain, processed grain and other commodities, struck the Helena, Arkansas, bridge that spans the Mississippi River. The bridge is located about 75 river miles south of Memphis.

As a result of the impact, all 30 barges broke loose and were floating uncontrolled down the river. The vessel’s pilot radioed the Coast Guard Sector Lower Mississippi River office in Memphis who immediately closed the river to traffic for a 60 mile reach downstream from Helena.

Responding vessels located or secured all of the breakaway barges the next day with the exception of one barge loaded with corn. Officials believed it had sunk about a mile south of the bridge.

Because of the river closure, more than a dozen towboats pushing 137 barges were burning time and money. Before they could reopen the river, the Coast Guard needed to know the exact location of the missing barge. They contacted the Memphis District and asked for our help to conduct an underwater survey of the area.

The morning of Feb. 26, the Memphis District survey vessels Sweep and Survey 1 headed south with their single- and multi-beam sonar systems to look for the missing corn barge.

Our survey boat crews routinely use these technological tools to produce highly accurate surveys of the river bottom. By analyzing the data they produce, we are better able to ensure safe and reliable navigation for the towing industry.

The survey boat Sweep, manned by Mark Manning and Wayne (Gibb) McGowan, and the Survey 1, with Donnie Armstrong, Danny Hunt, Riley Vandergriff and Brian Schafer, began searching the area about a mile south of the bridge where officials believed the corn barge sank. A look at the sonar scans quickly showed this was not just a barge they were seeing but something much larger.

Checking their records, our crews determined that what they were seeing was the wreck of the Motor Vessel T.L. Herbert. The towboat sank there on Jan. 2, 1983. They noted the exact location of the wreck then continued their underwater search. Later that day they spotted the missing barge on their screens. It was wrapped around one of the piers supporting the Helena bridge.

Have a look at the images of the sonar scans for both the 37-year-old wreck of the T.L. Herbert and the corn barge that accompany this story. The amazing level of detail is indicative of the high-end technology we are now using.

Thanks to the work of our survey boat crews, the Coast Guard was able to partially open the river for navigation the morning of Feb. 27. By then, 21 vessels and more than 230 barges were waiting for the green light.

Cooperation like this between the Memphis District and our river partners at the U.S. Coast Guard are routine but essential. Together, we are able to effectively fulfill our shared mission of ensuring safe navigation on the river.