A towing vessel capsized and sank in the Mississippi River near Baton Rouge on Thursday, but the crew members were safely rescued, the U.S. Coast Guard said.

Late Thursday evening, the Coast Guard reported that an oil sheen has been confirmed in the water at the site of the incident and that the Coast Guard and OMI Environmental are managing the spill from shore because of concerns over responder safety due to dangerous river conditions. 

"There is a reported potential of 18,500 gallons of fuel aboard the Michelle Anne," a statement from the Coast Guard says. "An unknown amount of oil has discharged into the river."

The vessel, the Michelle Anne, began sinking about 11 a.m. at the general anchorage in the river; four crew members took refuge on the empty cargo barge their vessel had been pushing, before their rescue by a tugboat, said Petty Officer Brandon Giles, a Guard spokesman.

A Marquette Transportation crew aboard the J. Andrew Eckstein tugboat made the rescue, according to a statement from the company. 

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A 1½-mile stretch of the Mississippi was closed from shortly after the incident to about 6:30 p.m. Thursday, as a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers safety unit team used underwater sonar to try to locate the sunken vessel, Giles said.

Before the river was reopened to traffic Thursday evening, a queue of 12 vessels headed downriver were lined up, waiting to continue their journey, with two vessels headed upriver waiting as well, he said.

While the waterway has been reopened, the general anchorage in Baton Rouge remained off limits as of 8 p.m. Thursday.

The Michelle Anne went down just south of the Interstate 10 bridge, near the east bank of the river where River Road intersects Brightside Drive south of the LSU campus, the Coast Guard said.

Giles said the investigation is ongoing and wasn't able to say whether the high level of the river was a contributing factor in the incident.  

David Billiot was riding in a crewboat on the river when the Michelle Anne capsized and was able to capture the incident on video.

"When the vessel first tipped to the port side, a large plume of smoke/steam escaped from the engine room doors due to the water rushing into the engine room and contacting the hot surfaces of the main engines and exhaust, which are all very hot," Billiot said. "That's what first caught my eye, and then I realized what I was really looking at."  

The Mississippi River at Baton Rouge has been above flood stage for weeks. Flood stage at Baton Rouge is 35 feet, though the 47-foot-high levees were still protecting the city as the river rose to 43.9 feet Thursday morning.

According to the National Weather Service, navigational safety precautions are imposed at 36 feet, and, at 43 feet, “shipping and industrial activities are significantly affected.”

The river at Baton Rouge has crested above 44 feet only six times over the last 97 years, most recently in 2011, according to the Advanced Hydrologic Prediction Service:

  • 47.28 feet on May 15, 1927
  • 45.18 feet on May 16, 1922
  • 45.18 feet on April 29, 1945
  • 45.01 feet on May 18, 2011
  • 44.58 feet on April 16,1945
  • 44.48 feet on Feb. 28, 1937

A flood warning is in effect for the Mississippi River at Baton Rouge until further notice.

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