Coast Guard Investigating Barge Accident


FORT WALTON BEACH -- The Coast Guard is investigating what caused a barge carrying a crane to crash in to the top of the Brooks Bridge on Wednesday, March 20.

Investigators will review every aspect of the accident, from the winds on Santa Rosa Sound to the background and health of the tugboat operators who were guiding the barges that hit the bridge at 3:15 p.m.

"It's a causality analysis," said Lt. Mike Clausen, an investigator with the Coast Guard sector in Mobile, Ala. "They're asking specific questions: the who, what, when, where, why and how."

He said the Coast Guard will not release the names of the companies that own the tugs or their operators until the investigation was complete. He estimated that would take two to three months.

The bridge was fully reopened Thursday morning after it was shut down completely for several hours after the accident. The Coast Guard also allowed boat traffic to resume along the Intracoastal Waterway late Thursday afternoon.

But residents and businesses on Okaloosa Island remained under a boil water notice Thursday night after a water line that was ruptured in the accident was repaired. The advisory will be lifted after tests show bacteria is in the water, said Jeff Littrell, director of Okaloosa County's Water and Sewer Department.

The tugs Miss Lizzy and Helene Maria were guiding four barges east in the sound when the crane on one of the barges hit the concrete barrier wall on the west side of the bridge and broke the water line running under the sidewalk. Chunks of concrete fell from the bridge and water from the pipe gushed into the sound.

No one was hurt and no vehicles crossing the bridge at the time were damaged, said Randy McDaniel, Okaloosa County's emergency management director.

The bridge was closed immediately after the crash and tolls on the Mid-Bay Bridge were suspended to help relieve traffic congestion.

Two lanes on the bridge were reopened Wednesday night and all four lanes were opened about 6 a.m. Thursday, according to Ian Satter, district spokesman for the Florida Department of Transportation. Tolls were reinstated on the Mid-Bay Bridge about the same time, Satter said.

"We opened up as quickly as we could. We had people needing to get to work, school, and we have the spring break crowd," he said.

Inspectors from the DOT found no structural damage to the bridge, and crews with Okaloosa County's Water and Sewer Department worked overnight to repair the water pipe.

Clausen with the Coast Guard in Mobile said officials with the Panama City Coast Guard station will investigate the crash.

"They're looking for what caused the accident," Clausen said. "Looking at work-rest periods of the operator, the vessel log, the machinery, maintenance. And if it's human-factor error we'll look at his license, where he obtained it, how long he's had it. We're looking for any evidence that it was human fault."

If found at fault, the tug operator could lose his license.Clausen said the tugboat's company also could be found at fault.

Satter said a damage estimate for the bridge wasn't available Thursday, but added that repair costs will not come from the DOT.

"Somebody will be held liable for the damages," he said.

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