Kylie Townsend/The News
Emergency vehicles lined the Marshall County side of the Eggner’s Ferry Bridge Thursday night, up and over Kentucky Lake. Beyond that, descending toward the Trigg County side, a few flashing lights reflected on the waves. In the middle, through the dense fog and light rain: nothing.
An ocean freight vessel collided with the U.S. 68/Ky. Hwy. 80 bridge at approximately 8:10 p.m., causing a nearly 200-foot portion of the bridge to collapse on the ship.
Now, Delta Mariner, the largest vessel to operate on America’s inland waterway system, floats on the water’s surface, bearing the weight of two fallen bridge spans.
Boats of rescue workers dot the usually calm body of water. Using side-scan sonar, crews search the lake for potential victims.
Carl Curtner of the Marshall County Rescue Squad said emergency response agencies were delayed by the rain and fog.
But within the hour, the Kenlake State Resort Park area was congested with first responders.
“There are approximately 15 to 20 people on the water at all times,” Curtner said.
A dive team stayed on stand-by near a recreational boat launch, should survivors be found, he said.
Eight boats patrolled the nearest pillar to where the cargo vessel waited. None of the 20 crew members on the carrier were injured and officials believe no vehicles or victims are in the water.
Austin Ramsey/The News
At a makeshift press conference in the lobby of the lodge at Kenlake State Resort Park only hours after the collision, three tired men stood before a small collection of reporters.
Dean Patterson, public affairs officer for the Kentucky State Police Post 1, Jim LeFevre, chief district engineer for the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet, and Marshall County Sheriff Kevin Byars spoke while KTC investigators assessed the damage less than a mile from where they stood.
Byars, who had just stepped off a boat to review the scene, entered the room visibly shaken.
“The bridge is draping over the bow of the ship,” the weary sheriff said, shaking his head and wiping his brow.
Patterson said officials had not yet determined why the ship had hit the bridge’s deck. Likely carrying aeronautic, space-bound hardware such as rocket boosters, the ship had only a small clearance.
Keith Todd, with the KTC said he knew the freighter had enough space to clear the bridge under the right conditions. He’d seen it happen countless times before.
The Coast Guard previously reported several lights out on the bridge. One lane was going to be shut down today for repair.
Reports vary as to whether or not the lights were on so the ship pilot could see. LeFevre said he was certain the north side of the bridge was illuminated, but the Delta Mariner approached the bridge from the south side travelling from Decatur, Ala., most likely headed either to Cape Canaveral, Fla., or Vandenberg Air Force Base near Lompoc, Calif.
Highway officials told the media that sightseers should avoid the entire area around the bridge.
“This incident is very real,” he said “Don’t come down here to sight see.”
Amanda Baker, junior from Cadiz, Ky., said if matters had been just a bit different, she might have plunged into the water below.
Baker, who has an apartment in Murray, had gone home earlier in the day to visit her parents. When she approached the bridge on her way back to Calloway County, she was following a truck. As the two vehicles drove onto the bridge, Baker said a car with its emergency flashers on was parked.
Jordie Oetken/The News
“I saw the boat and I couldn’t tell if it was stopped or moving so slow that it looked that way,” Baker said. “A girl from the parked car – she was terrified – ran up to us and told us to get off the bridge.”
Baker said no emergency responders were there at the time. She said about 20 cars were backed up on the bridge and into Trigg County.
“Cars were honking. I guess they thought we were stopped for no reason,” she said. “They didn’t know what was going on.”
Baker said she and the other drivers were able to maneuver their cars into the other lane to get off of the bridge. Baker traced her tire marks and headed back to Interstate 24. It took her an hour and a half to get back to Murray.
“I’m glad I didn’t leave my house five minutes earlier,” Baker said. “I probably would’ve driven over.”
Other witnesses said they had noted the size of the boat when approaching the bridge. At 312-foot-long, the carrier was built to transport Boeing Delta IV rockets. It is 82 feet wide and 50 feet tall.
The bridge connects Trigg and Marshall counties over Kentucky Lake.
Graphic by Elizabeth Johnson/The News
The bridge sees traffic of approximately 2,800 vehicles a day. The nearest ways to access Calloway County from the east without using the bridge is to go through Grand Rivers, Ky., or Dover, Tenn.
Todd said it will take several days just to evaluate the extent of damage to the bridge and find the best solution.
Following the incident, Murray State released a press release claiming the Internet connection was experiencing a slow down due to cables strung across the bridge.
The bridge has been open to traffic for almost 80 years. It was closed temporarily in 1943 so it could be raised due to higher water levels as result of the impounding of Kentucky Lake.
Surrounded on each side by recently expanded four-lane highways, the two-lane bridge, along with its sister stretching over Barkley Lake, are expected to be replaced in several years. According to LakeBridges.com, both bridges are in design stages.
The Coast Guard has closed Kentucky Lake and the Tennessee River to boat traffic at the site.