GONZALES — A public hearing into what happened during an Oct. 12 bridge crash that shut the Sunshine Bridge for more than a month is scheduled for the week of May 6 in Ascension Parish, the incident's lead U.S. Coast Guard investigator said.
Commander Matthew Meskun, of the Coast Guard's Atlantic Area Command in Portsmouth, Virginia, said the hearings will bring together key parties for public testimony at the Lamar-Dixon Expo Center near Gonzales. The hearings also will be live-streamed over the internet.
A Cooper Consolidated crane barge being pushed upstream by a Marquette Transportation towboat hit the southwest side of the Mississippi River bridge in the early morning darkness. The crash, which led to the barge being stuck for hours until it could be lowered, caused damage to key support beams, according to state highway officials and incident reports from the time.
The bridge directly connects two sides of St. James Parish just east of Donaldsonville but also provides an important link for the east and west banks of Ascension and other parishes in the area.
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Meskun said he could not release any details about what the joint Coast Guard and U.S. National Transportation Safety Board investigation has found so far because the inquiry is still in its fact-finding stage. He and other investigators are trying to line up formal interviews and gather other information.
"Once we complete the hearing, we'll essentially be done with the fact-finding portion and then we'll go back and analyze all of the facts and piece it all together," Meskun said in a recent interview.
Meskun, who is leading what's known as a "marine casualty" investigation into the crash, said that once the Coast Guard and NTSB have established and then sorted through all those facts, he will write a report detailing the inquiry and make findings that could include referrals for enforcement action.
Those actions can range from civil penalties for companies or people to the suspension and revocation of mariners' licenses, he added.
After the crash, the entire four-lane bridge, which handles about 25,000 vehicles per day, was shuttered until two lanes reopened Dec. 1 following a series of emergency repairs.
More work is yet to be done before the bridge is completely reopened. State highway officials expect to close all four lanes on the bridge again from 6 a.m. Saturday to 5 a.m. Monday to replace important structural supports.
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Weather delayed that closure, which had been planned for this past weekend. The emergency repair project is expected to be finished sometime in early February, state highway officials have said.
Meskun added the hearings were scheduled at Lamar-Dixon to provide better access to the public most affected by the bridge crash.
Marquette officials have previously pledged to cooperate with the probe. Cooper officials have said the crane on their barge, the D/B Mr. Ervin, was properly in its cradle and none of their workers were operating or on the barge at the time of the crash.
Meanwhile, Donaldsonville businesses that sued in state court over their losses from the bridge closure failed last week to lift a federal stay on the Ascension Parish litigation.
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A federal magistrate left a stay in place after arguments in New Orleans last Wednesday while Marquette's federal petition to limit its liability in the crash remains pending.
The plaintiffs wanted to lift the federal stay to pursue further discovery against Marquette in state court and challenge any federal limitation of Marquette's or any other companies' liability, court papers say.
Marquette is seeking to limit its liability for the crash to nearly $1.55 million, the value of the M/V Kristin Alexis, the towboat involved the crash, and its freight, court papers say.
In addition to the business owners, state officials have said separately that they will pursue recouping Louisiana's repair costs for the bridge, which could reach up to $5 million.
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