LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — A daytime look at an Arkansas highway bridge in the path of two runaway barges showed signs of damage to its pier protectors Saturday, but nothing significant enough to close the roadway, authorities said.
State police closed the Interstate 30 bridge for an hour Friday night, along with four other spans across the Arkansas River, after a towboat operator said he feared his runaway load may have struck piers. The spans reopened after a state inspector said the bridges themselves were not hit.
The head of the Arkansas Waterways Commission and the North Little Rock Fire Department inspected the bridges in daylight Saturday and found the damage was limited to fresh scrapes on the concrete-capped pier protectors.
"We're grateful that the devices worked," said Gene Higginbotham, executive director of the commission. "They've done a good job. That's why you have the devices."
The I-30 bridge carries 114,000 vehicles daily. The Friday evening commute had already ended when the accident occurred but traffic in the Little Rock and North Little Rock entertainment districts was snarled when police also closed two pedestrian bridges and two bridges carrying city streets.
The only bridge to remain open after the accident was limited to railroad traffic, meaning at least a 16-mile detour for motorists.
Higginbotham said the barges, pushed by the MV Midland, made only a glancing blow to the I-30 bridge and a pedestrian span near the Clinton Presidential Library that is part of a riverfront trail.
The pier protectors are steel-enwrapped and concrete-capped cylinders filled with rocks, gravel and sand to cushion blows from passing barges and towboats.
The U.S. Coast Guard in Memphis, Tenn., said Saturday the Midland was pushing 12 barges and that half of them came loose, though not all of them floated away freely.
Lt. j.g. Brian Porter, a Coast Guard spokesman, said two vessels helped wrangle the loose barges about a mile downstream. One barge needed minor repairs and the towboat would be allowed to continue its trip to Rosedale, Miss., after the tow is put back together, Porter said.
Higginbotham said the Midland was owned by Ingram Barge Co. of Nashville. Its answering service said officials would be available Monday.
Randy Ort, spokesman for the Arkansas Highway and Transportation Department, said his agency's bridge inspectors wouldn't return until Monday. He said there was nothing to indicate an imminent danger to traffic on the highways or the river.
The bridge was completed around 1970, Ort said, and was designed to accommodate the Arkansas River Navigation System, which was completed in 1974. The distance between the piers at Little Rock is 300 feet.
The I-30 bridge is scheduled to be widened from its current six lanes to eight lanes in the next 10 years. Higginbotham said the new bridge would likely be designed to reduce the hazards to and from river navigation.