By Maya T. Prabhu and Nicholas Soh
ANNAPOLIS – The Coast Guard will launch an investigation to determine what caused a barge to break free from its moorings in the Severn River Tuesday morning and become lodged under a bridge on U.S. Route 50, prompting authorities to close the main route between the Washington area and the Eastern Shore for two hours.
After receiving word from the Coast Guard that an unmanned barge was floating out of control down the Severn and would likely strike one of two bridges over the river, Maryland State Police quickly cleared both bridges and halted traffic in both directions.
The barge struck the pilings under the heavily traveled Route 50 bridge, which carries motorists through the Annapolis area to and from the Chesapeake Bay Bridge. Route 50 is the main route connecting Annapolis and the Eastern Shore with the Washington, D.C., area, and also connects to Interstate 97, which is the main route to the Baltimore area.
The collision did little but “cosmetic” damage to the bridge, which was reopened after it was deemed to be structurally sound.
If it is determined that Langenfelder Marine Inc., the company that owns the barge, is at fault, a Coast Guard official said fines in the neighborhood of $5,000 to $10,000 could be levied.
But, Coast Guard Lt. Connie L. Williamson, who heads the marine investigation division that is handling the incident, said that the barge breaking loose could potentially be no one’s fault.
“Sometimes, things just break,” she said.
Langenfelder Marine had no comment.
Authorities first became aware of the runaway barge at 10:15 a.m. when they were alerted by people who had seen the barge floating out of control, Coast Guard spokesman Lt. Andrew Ely said.
Maryland State Police shut down the Severn River Bridge (Route 50) and the Naval Academy Bridge (Route 450) by 10:22 a.m., a state police spokesman said, after the Coast Guard notified them of the “probable collision.”
The barge, filled with riprap that was to be used to create a jetty, ended up wedged between pilings of the Severn River Bridge. That prompted authorities to reopen the Naval Academy Bridge, which was untouched. When the barge later broke free from the Severn River Bridge, apparently on its own, the Naval Academy Bridge was once again shut down until it was clear the danger had passed.
Some drivers were forced to wait until nearly 1 p.m. when the bridge was reopened. Others in the eastbound lanes were allowed to turn around through an opening in a Jersey wall into the westbound lanes or were redirected by police in an attempt to avoid the traffic that stretched out for four to five miles in either direction.
Still others took the last exit before the bridge, slowing traffic in downtown Annapolis to a crawl.
A Maryland State Highway Administration bridge inspector was at the scene by the time owners had a tug boat remove the barge, said SHA spokesman Chuck Gischlar.
“[Inspectors] were immediately able to ascertain that the damage was just cosmetic in nature and that the bridge was structurally sound, so we released traffic,” he said.
Valerie Burnette Edgar, SHA communications director, said this is not something that happens frequently.
“I’ve been here for 16 years and I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything like this,” she said.
Williamson, who recently relocated to Maryland from New York, said the incident wasn’t so unusual to her. “We had runaway barges a lot in New York, “she said. “I don’t think I’ve ever had one hit a bridge before.”