Barge blockade on the Connecticut River

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An oil barge snarled boating traffic near the mouth of the Connecticut River for hours after its hawser parted with the tugboat that was pulling it and struck the protective pilings of the Amtrak railroad bridge, damaging the 75-foot fender below the raised drawbridge.

An oil barge snarled boating traffic near the mouth of the Connecticut River for hours after its hawser parted with the tugboat that was pulling it and struck the protective pilings of the Amtrak railroad bridge, damaging the 75-foot fender below the raised drawbridge.

“Accidents happen, but these tugboat captains are good. They know what they’re doing,” says Mark Yuknat who captains RiverQuest, a 54-foot twin-hulled tour boat based in Essex, Conn. “I’d be very surprised if any individual on that boat caused the accident. It’s lucky that no one was hurt.”

Shortly after 3 p.m. Sept. 9, the tugboat Turecamo Girls was pulling the 310-foot barge, named Connecticut, downriver from Middletown, Conn., headed to New York, says Lt. Chris Tsairis, an incident manager with the Coast Guard’s Sector Long Island Sound. About 100 yards from the bridge the barge became separated from the tugboat.

“When that happens, the tide is still carrying this barge downriver,” Tsairis says. “Environmentally, we’re fortunate that the barge was empty at the time of the incident.”

The Turecamo Girls crew dropped the barge’s anchor to try to slow it down, Tsairis says. The anchor became caught on debris from the bridge’s fender system and contributed to pinning the barge against the bridge.

Yuknat says he headed downriver not long after the accident happened.

“I can only imagine being on a boat nearby and seeing that barge come down the river,” he says.

Amtrak trains were delayed for more than 30 minutes after the accident, Tsairis says. Several hours after the incident the tide eased and another tugboat towed Connecticut from the bridge. A state dive team, using sidescan sonar, was deployed to make sure debris from the incident had not created a navigational hazard. Recreational boat traffic was not permitted to pass the bridge until about midnight.

“This, I’m sure, was an inconvenience for a lot of the boaters who were stuck on both sides of the bridge,” Tsairis says. “But safety comes first. We, along with other local agencies, needed to be 100 percent sure the river was safe to transit.”

The day after the accident RiverQuest captain Yuknat says he heard a boater call the Coast Guard about the incident over VHF radio. “I was on [RiverQuest] when I first heard the transmission. I perked right up once I heard what it was about,” Yuknat explains. “He owned a sailboat and was wondering if the Coast Guard was looking for any witnesses.”

Yuknat says the boater reported he was heading north up the river when he noticed a tug and barge near the bridge.

“He said he turned his boat to starboard to watch the tug,” Yuknat says. “Shortly after, the tug turned to starboard and there was some big commotion at the stern. Then he thought he saw a line snap and the barge was free.”

Yuknat says he would not be surprised if a recreational boater was possibly to blame for the incident on that busy Saturday afternoon on the river.

The specifics of how the tug and barge parted remained unclear at press time. A Coast Guard Investigation of the incident was expected to take “a number of weeks,” Tsairis says.