The operator of a crane barge that slammed into the Sunshine Bridge at Donaldsonville early Friday, shuttering the critical span, has a history of marine accidents in Louisiana, including ramming a tugboat into the Mardi Gras World warehouse and workshop while New Orleans Mayor Latoya Cantrell celebrated her inauguration last May.
Operators for Marquette Transportation hit the Sunshine Bridge on Friday with a crane being maneuvered by the towboat Kristine Alexis, according to U.S. Coast Guard Lt. Commander Raymond Wagner. In May, the Steve Richoux towboat pushing six concrete-laden barges upriver lost control and hit a wharf just outside Mardi Gras World's "float den." The crash collapsed a walkway and caused part of a warehouse to sag near the water.
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Marquette Transportation, based in Paducah, Kentucky, has a location in Harahan. The firm operates river, gulf-inland and offshore vessels for a range of cargo, including grains, coal, oil and specialty cargo like construction equipment, military equipment and riverboat casinos.
The New Orleans crash caused "substantial damage," setting off a federal investigation. The collision Friday "severely damaged" a load-bearing beam on the Sunshine Bridge, closing the span indefinitely.
Coast Guard Lt. Commander Travis Collier said the Mardi Gras World crash is still being investigated by the National Transportation Safety Board and the Coast Guard.
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Marquette Transportation President Damon Judd said in a statement Friday afternoon that the Sunshine Bridge collision happened shortly before 2 a.m. He said their were no injuries and "no impact to the environment."
"We are taking this matter very seriously and are actively working with the Coast Guard and the LA DOT to complete the investigation and assess the damage to the bridge and required repairs," he said.
Wagner said it was not clear what exactly the barge was doing, where it was headed or who was on board when it ran into the bridge Friday.
“We’re digging into that,” he said. “Investigators are on the scene to determine what the barge was doing, why it was on that side of the river, why it was going through that specific span on the river.”
The National Transportation Safety Board was not conducting an investigation as of Friday morning, Wagner said, but could get involved if the incident rises to the level of “potential major marine casualty.” Coast Guard officials are in the preliminary phase of an investigation, Wagner said, and few details about the crash were immediately available.
Friday’s crash was also not the first time a Marquette Transportation vessel hit a bridge. The company, which was founded in 1978, managed the towing vessel that hit the U.S. 80 bridge near Vicksburg, Mississippi, in 2008.
Marquette was also listed as an "involved organization" in another collision in 2014 with the U.S. 190 bridge in Baton Rouge. A barge carrying corn hit a beam supporting the bridge and took on water, but did not sink, according to Coast Guard records. The bridge was not damaged, according to records.
Federal court records also show Marquette was involved with a 2014 collision in East Baton Rouge Parish, when a vessel operated by Marquette, towing five barges, crashed into another vessel.
The crash into the Sunshine Bridge on Friday shuttered indefinitely a major travel artery in Donaldsonville, delaying school start times and diverting thousands of drivers to alternate routes.
Z. David Deloach, owner of Deloach Marine Services in Baton Rouge, said industry representatives met with the Coast Guard a few years ago to implement some "best-practices" after a rash of incidents. One of the parameters required captains to know the height of cranes on barges.
While Deloach said he could not comment specifically on the Marquette Transportation incident, he said the industry overall has a "stellar safety record," especially considering the millions of tons of cargo carried each year, but occasionally accidents happen.
The crane atop the barge was in an upright position when it hit the bridge. Photos showed a horizontal beam of the bridge was crumpled. Louisiana State Police reported the crash just before 3 a.m., and the state Department of Transportation and Development said it had identified a contractor to work on the bridge and was trying to reopen it as quickly as possible.