Ohio River near Pittsburgh is closed as crews search for missing barge, one of 26 that broke loose

A stretch of the Ohio River near Pittsburgh remained closed to maritime traffic on Monday as crews equipped with sonar looked for a barge believed to have sunk over the weekend — one of more than two dozen barges that broke loose and floated down the rain-swollen river.

The U.S. Coast Guard launched an investigation into how 26 river barges got loose from their moorings late Friday, striking a bridge and smashing a pair of marinas. All but three of the barges were loaded with coal, fertilizer and other dry cargo.

No injuries were reported and no hazardous materials spilled into the river, according to Pittsburgh police and Coast Guard officials, but the river was expected to remain off limits to mariners while the barges' owner formulated a plan to salvage its runaway vessels.

Coast Guard investigators were looking at high water as a possible cause or factor, said Cmdr. Justin Jolley of the Coast Guard marine safety unit in Pittsburgh. The area had been hit by flooding after heavy rains Thursday.

High water can pose a risk for tied barges, which occasionally break loose on the Ohio, said Alan Nogy, operations project manager of locks and dams at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' Pittsburgh District.

“That current can pull on them and that would be the biggest hazard, the power of the water could cause a situation like we have here now. We were on back-to-back high water events, so that doesn’t give industry a lot of time to shore things up if they thought they had to because we never really had a break,” he said.

Nogy spoke by phone from the Emsworth Locks and Dam, where seven barges were still stuck. Another barge was pinned against the Dashields Locks and Dam, several miles downstream

One barge remained unaccounted for on Monday and was believed to be submerged.

“We’re optimistic we’ll be able to locate where that barge is today or tomorrow and then we can mark it accordingly and restore navigation,” Jolley, of the Coast Guard, said Monday.

“I think we were very fortunate given the circumstances here that there were no injuries or threats to life, no pollution and so far no major reports of damage to infrastructure to Army Corps locks and dams,” he said.

The runaway barges were owned or operated by Campbell Transportation Co. Company officials were on site Monday morning and were not immediately available for comment.

Barges wrecked dozens of boat slips at the Branchport Boat Club.

“It is like losing a member of the family. Now we won’t be able to open for business this year,” club manager Tony Ravida told the Tribune-Review.

Peggy’s Harbor, a family-owned marina on the Ohio River in Pittsburgh, also sustained significant damage. A woman who answered the phone at Peggy’s declined comment.

One of the loose barges struck the Sewickley Bridge, which police had shut down Saturday afternoon as the vessel approached. An inspection revealed no significant damage, and the bridge was reopened to traffic, according to Steve Cowan, of the state Department of Transportation.

American Waterways Operators, a trade group that represents tugboat and barge companies, said it’s awaiting the completion of the probe to “gain further insight as to what occurred.” It said Monday that barges “safely and efficiently” move 58 million tons of cargo on Pennsylvania waterways each year.