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Barge impacts Gandy Bridge

The Florida Department of Transportation says it could take two weeks to replace a 48-foot horizontal beam underneath it and repair other damage.

Published March 31, 2006

[Times photo: Brian Cassella]
Crews prepare to cut open the right shoulder of the Gandy Bridge on Friday morning to replace the horizontal beam that was damaged in Thursday's accident. Traffic flowed smoothly Friday morning despite one lane of the span being closed.

TAMPA - Motorists driving east over the Gandy Bridge will encounter traffic jams the next couple of weeks as work crews repair damage from a barge that broke away from a tugboat and struck the bridge Thursday, damaging a support beam.

A 48-foot horizontal beam beneath the right lane will be replaced, along with 10 feet of the shoulder and some of the right lane.

Weather permitting, the repairs could take as little as two weeks, Florida Department of Transportation officials said.

DOT hopes to restripe the bridge's lanes to take advantage of the undamaged left side, still providing drivers with two lanes. But the pace still will be slowed because of construction workers and vehicles.

DOT officials were relieved the barge didn't damage a vertical piling in the water, which could have caused more harm and crippled the commute of an estimated 45,000 drivers who use the Gandy Bridge daily.

This is at least the second time a barge has struck the bridge since it opened in 1924, the first span to link Pinellas and Hillsborough counties. In 1981, a barge steered by a Tampa tugboat pilot collided with a support column, closing eastbound lanes for two months.

On Thursday, fishermen 650 feet away on solid land felt the bridge move when the 285-foot barge Apache slammed into it just after noon.

"I was thinking maybe they were going to work on the bridge," said Garlon Hodges, 27, of Tampa, who watched deck hands onboard begin to panic as the barge drifted toward the bridge. "But when it got closer, you could see people scrambling and bracing for impact."

A tug boat named the Crosby Skipper was guiding the Apache, a standard Liquid Petroleum Gas barge carrying propane gas, north through an Old Tampa Bay shipping channel.

The Apache was headed home, aiming for its Tampa terminal at 5105 W Tyson Ave. As the tug approached the Gandy Bridge, it turned right, witnesses said, prompting the tug cables to snap and setting the barge loose in a strong current flowing toward the bridge.

"According to witnesses, it sounded like a shotgun," said Lt. Roger Young of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. "Next thing you know, that barge was free, drifting at a pretty good rate of speed."

The incoming tide and swift channel shoved the port bow of the barge under the bridge, where it slammed into the concrete support beam.

The impact broke off chunks of concrete on a 30-foot section of the Gandy, including a 3- by 3-foot chunk.

Young said the tides held the barge against the bridge for nearly 30 minutes until the tug maneuvered it out and pushed it toward its destination.

Young, who scrambled from his nearby office to the bridge, saw two deck hands giving him the okay sign, indicating that no one was hurt.

"There was no hazardous pollution, nothing," said U.S. Coast Guard Petty Officer Tasha Tully. "No loss of life or injuries."

But the integrity of the horizontal column under the right lane, 8-feet above the water line, was in question.

Tampa police shut down the bridge for a few hours, trapping traffic on the span while Pinellas County Sheriff's officials temporarily set up barricades at Fourth Street N in St. Petersburg to prevent more cars from driving onto the bridge.

Traffic was backed up nearly the entire span of about 3 miles to Pinellas County while DOT officials sent divers into the water to check on the bridge pilings.

Eventually, DOT opened the left eastbound lane, allowing cars to trickle back into Tampa.

"It is completely safe," said Pepe Garcia, DOT District Structures and Facilities engineer, who had just returned from a boat ride to examine the damage. "I'll be driving on it."

Garcia said the DOT's asset management contractor, Infrastructure Corp. of America, will handle the repairs.

By late afternoon, he said, the company already lined up a subcontractor, started design plans and spoke to a precast company to reconstruct the damaged 48-foot steel-reinforced concrete beam, one of five underneath the Gandy Bridge.

Even if DOT, by restriping, can recreate two lanes after the right shoulder is demolished, motorists will face some slowdowns as work crews move repair equipment onto the bridge over the next two weeks.

Garcia could not estimate repair costs but said the asset management company is responsible for collecting money from whoever is responsible for the accident. The Coast Guard, which released few details Thursday, said the case remains under investigation.

Targa Resources, the Houston natural gas provider, owns the Apache. Crosby Tugs of Golden Meadow, La., owns the Crosby Skipper. This is not the first time the two crafts have had trouble.

According to the Florida Keys Keynoter, the Crosby Skipper had been towing the Apache during Hurricane Katrina on Aug. 26 when the barge grounded off Plantation Key. The towline had broken during the storm and the tug rigged its emergency towline to take the barge farther off shore.

Eight and a half hours later, the tug's emergency towline snapped and the barge was blown toward shore again.

Joe Perkins, president of Targa Resources, declined to comment Thursday, except to say his company is being cooperative with investigators. Officials with Crosby Tugs didn't return calls seeking comment.

Old Tampa Bay is known for its challenging currents and tides, area boating experts said.

"When tugs tow barges in there, they're kind of at the mercy of the winds and the currents," Lt. Young said.

Times staff writers Kevin Graham and Cathy Wos contributed to this report. Justin George can be reached at 813 226-3368 or

[Last modified March 31, 2006, 01:08:15]

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