Winter storm causes dozens of barges to break free, pile up at Emsworth Dam
As Pittsburghers slept through a fast-moving storm that smothered Western Pennsylvania with rain, sleet and snow, a barge broke free from its mooring early Saturday and floated 15 miles past the city's limits along the Ohio River and slammed sideways into the Emsworth Locks and Dams.
Then came another barge, appearing to drift as aimlessly in the heavy winds as a paper boat despite weighing as much as 1,700 tons — or 3.4 million pounds. Then came several more, with ice-crusted waves splashing as one loose barge after another crashed.
By lunchtime, at least 27 barges — some spilling over with coal, others with covered containers — had either gotten stuck, partially submerged or began to sink at Emsworth in what was among the largest such incidents that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers could recall in recent memory.
"We do have barge breakaways; it's not an uncommon thing," said Jeff Hawk, spokesman for the Pittsburgh District of the Army Corps, which operates the dam and captured several of the incidents on video. "This is a pretty incredible event for the amount of barges."
In total, more than 60 barges broke loose along regional waterways including the Allegheny, Monongahela and Ohio rivers between Friday night and Saturday morning. But none compared in size to the pileup at Emsworth, where at least one barge sank completely and more were still rolling and sinking into the evening, according to Hawk.
"It's a lot for our structures to handle, and it's a lot to come down at one time," said Hawk, noting that there could be a few more sunken barges officials had yet to find or may have passed through the dam. "They're loaded barges, so that makes it more difficult."
Curious onlookers snapped photographs of the Emsworth barge pileup and gasped as they looked at the muddled mess of massive watercraft, their platforms peeking out through mounds of snow as river water continued to rush through the dam. One barge pressed up against and damaged a Coast Guard patrol boat.
"Honey, come real quick. It is freaking insane!" Darlene Seaton, 49, of Carnegie called out to her boyfriend after snapping a few photographs from the shoreline, among more than a dozen others.
"This is freaking amazing. It's crazy," continued Seaton, who learned about the incident via her Facebook fishing buddies. She wondered if perhaps one of the barges that broke through was the one she'd seen earlier in the morning wedged against the trees bordering the parking lot at the Kilbuck Township Fish and Boat Commission Boat Ramp.
None of the cargo on the stranded barges was believed to be hazardous, said Jim Zubik Jr., president of River Salvage Company, the contractor that will send its salvage big rig to pull out the barges once river conditions improve.
No injuries were reported, but the Emsworth pileup prompted concerns that the stacked barges and ice could form their own sort of dam, impeding water flow and causing flooding upstream.
The National Weather Service had issued a river flood warning for the Ohio River at Pittsburgh, saying the river was expected to crest at 25.5 feet.
"The Army Corps, working with the Coast Guard and the industry and the Port of Pittsburgh, we're doing what we can to mitigate the risk to the public and to the structure," Hawk said.
After a relatively balmy Thursday, snowmelt and record rain flooded streets and basements across the region Friday. And as temperatures dropped overnight, roads were coated with thick layers of ice smothered in snow.
The weather service recorded 6.3 inches of snowfall across greater Pittsburgh.
Pittsburgh water rescue teams had to save two people Saturday morning after their vehicles ended up underwater in the so-called "bathtub" section of the flooded Parkway East, according to Allegheny County 911. One person was taken to a hospital.
By 5 p.m., industry gauges showed that regional river levels were receding, which Zubik of the salvage company said was a "good sign." He said he's seen and cleared worse barge-related backups, and he's hopeful his company will have the Emsworth Locks and Dams cleared within the next few days.
Emergency dispatchers in Westmoreland County said there were numerous minor crashes on icy and snowy roads Saturday morning, but no major incidents.
The weekend's snowfall is likely over in most places in the region, the weather service said.
No precipitation is expected Sunday. There is a 40 percent chance of flurries Monday.
Jacob Tierney and Natasha Lindstrom are Tribune-Review staff writers. Reach Tierney at 724-836-6646, firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @Soolseem. Reach Lindstrom at 412-380-8514, email@example.com or via Twitter @NewsNatasha.