Update: Louisiana gas barge fire--2.9 million gallons of gasoline at risk

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Gasoline barges hit bridge, catch fire on Atchafalaya

By CHRIS FRINK Westside bureau

SIMMESPORT -- A string of barges loaded with 2.9 million gallons of gasoline struck a railway bridge over the Atchafalaya River early Friday morning, burst into flames and drifted downstream.

The accident injured no one and forced no evacuations, but closed one road in a remote area of Avoyelles Parish and shut down traffic on the river.

At midafternoon, the four barges, still linked two-by-two, idled between two eddies in a sharp river bend about 15 miles below the bridge.

A cluster of flames 5- to 6-feet high burned along the right side. A steady wind blew a narrow column of dark smoke low to the northwest.

A tow boat stood by about a half-mile downstream from the burning barges.

Recovery crews who set up a command post on the rivers west bank were the only signs of human activity in a landscape dominated by agricultural fields, wood lands and the Atchafalayas broad, brown band.

"Theyre just waiting to let it burn until the time that they find some significant pollution in the river," said Petty Office Louis Bott of the U.S. Coast Guards New Orleans Office.

"Were kind of at a standstill," he said.

No decision had been made on how to douse the flames, but as the cargo of unleaded gasoline burned off, the danger of a catastrophic explosion increased, Bott said.

The lashed-together barges, cut loose by the towboat crew after the impact, ended up bobbing in the riverbend after they paused along the bank several times while they floated downstream, Bott said. "It just pinged along the river and stopped in the eddy."

The towboat Melinda Brent owned by Kirby Inland Marine was pushing the barges south when the tow hit the Kansas City Southern Railroad bridge about 1 a.m., the Coast Guard reported. The bridge was not damaged.

Kirby Marine hired two environmental firms to monitor air quality and stand by for cleanup duties, the Coast Guard said.

Two of the barges caught fire and, at one time Friday morning, flames roared 30 to 50 feet high, said State Trooper Steve Childers said.

The fires consumed gasoline that would otherwise have polluted the river, he said. "Its substantially reduced the environmental impact."

State Police closed La. 105 in Avoyelles Parish from La. 1183 to the St. Landry Parish line to allow room to move equipment in and out of the area, Childers said.

"Its a very remote area. If it had to happen, it couldnt have happened in a better place," he said.


-- Carl Jenkins (Somewherepress@aol.com), February 27, 2000

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