GONZALES — A Marquette Transportation tugboat ran a crane barge into the Veterans Memorial Bridge near Gramercy a month and a half before a different Marquette tug also pushing a crane barge had a more serious crash last fall with the Sunshine Bridge just up the Mississippi River.

The previously undisclosed but far less severe crash into the Veterans Memorial Bridge on Aug. 30 came to light Friday afternoon at the end of a day-long hearing by a federal panel investigating the Sunshine Bridge crash near Donaldsonville.

The revelation means that the thousands of drivers who used the Veterans Memorial Bridge for a month and a half to detour around the Sunshine Bridge after it was hit on Oct. 12 were riding on a bridge also damaged from the earlier incident involving the same tugboat company.

David Miller, the state highway maintenance chief, told U.S. Coast Guard and National Transportation Safety Board investigators Friday that inspection crews checked the Veterans Memorial Bridge immediately after the crash. They determined the damage wasn't enough to require the span's closure or even to place load restrictions on it.

He said one main tension beam was bent a little bit and a cross member under the bridge deck, a secondary beam, was bent a "fairly good bit." 

Miller, who had testified Thursday that the Sunshine Bridge crash was so serious that, on paper, the river span technically should have collapsed, was called back before the panel Friday for additional, previously unscheduled testimony about the other bridge crash.

Since Monday, the panel has been calling witnesses to Lamar-Dixon Expo Center to testify about the Sunshine Bridge incident as the investigators work to determine its probable cause and to develop any recommendations that could prevent future crashes.

The panel spent part of Thursday and much of Friday learning about how federal agencies that map the river and the bridges crossing it developed the information showing the amount of space under the bridges, or the vertical clearance for river traffic, and ways that information can be more accurately and more widely disseminated to mariners.

The Sunshine Bridge crash — and apparently the Veterans Memorial Bridge crash — involved large crane barges under tow. These barges can be so tall that, under certain river conditions and under the lower parts of some spans, they push the vertical limits of Mississippi bridges otherwise designed to accommodate huge ocean-going traffic. 

But, under maritime rules, captains bear the ultimate responsibility to ensure the safety of their tug and the vessels under tow while a voyage is underway. Previous testimony showed the master captain and pilot of Marquette's Kristin Alexis tugboat didn't double check on their ability to pass under the Sunshine Bridge's lower, alternate channel when the Cooper Consolidated crane barge hit it in October.

Marquette attorneys at the hearing Friday declined to comment about the Aug. 30 crash into the Veterans Memorial Bridge and did not ask Miller any questions.

But, in a later statement, Marquette officials said their initial interviews with the tug master captain following a Coast Guard inquiry on Aug. 31 indicated the Veterans Memorial Bridge had not been hit.

Crew members reported maybe something under water was hit after they passed under the bridge. Another Marquette vessel took photos of the alleged strike area Sept. 4 but also didn't find any visible recent damage, the statement says. 

The company officials said they weren't told about state highway officials' discovery of "surface scratches to the bridge" probably from "a crane rubbing the underside of the bridge" until Sept. 7, three days after the company had made its initial report to the Coast Guard.

After the state Department of Transportation and Development's disclosure, Marquette hired a drone surveyor but wasn't able to get one under the bridge until Sept. 27 due to weather delays.

Despite requests, Marquette had not received more information from DOTD until Friday's hearing, the statement says, but company officials do agree, based on their own investigation, that the crane in Marquette's possession hit the bridge Aug. 30.

With a laser pointer on Friday, Miller showed Michael Kucharski, an NTSB investigator on the panel, how the Associated Terminals crane barge hit the bridge on the far western side, outside its main channel for river traffic.

The general crash site on that bridge happened at a point similar to where the Marquette tug Kristin Alexis had pushed the Cooper crane barge into the Sunshine Bridge. That barge, which stands 136 feet tall, also hit that bridge's western span. The span is also outside the bridge's main channel for river traffic.

Both Mississippi River bridges have arches built into them that make them taller in the middle where the main channels are and lower as they extend over alternate channels toward the shoreline.

An Army Corps of Engineers map for the Sunshine Bridge shows its main and western spans do have measured heights for passing river traffic. In contrast, a profile map for the Veterans Memorial Bridge doesn't have a similar measurement for the western span. The height is unclear.

In the Veterans Memorial Bridge crash, the tug, identified as the Taylor Marie, was following another vessel through the alternate span while pushing the crane barge, the Marquette statement says.

In a later email, Rodney Mallet, a DOTD spokesman, said the state doesn't have all the details on the repairs to that bridge or the costs yet. The repairs to the more severely damaged Sunshine Bridge are expected to cost upward of $6.5 million.

Miller told the investigative panel that the Veterans Memorial Bridge will be fixed as part of a previously planned rehabilitation project and that the work is expected to go out to bid "sometime in the next year."

The pilot and name of the barge in the Veterans Memorial Bridge crash were not disclosed Friday. A state highway accident report briefly displayed to the panel wasn't immediately available afterward.

The panel is scheduled to have its final day of testimony Saturday. A final report from the Coast Guard on the Sunshine Bridge crash isn't expected to be public for a year. The NTSB will also put out its own report. 


Follow David J. Mitchell on Twitter, @NewsieDave.