TUGBOAT slide 19
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Notice the propwash at the rear of the tug.
The boat is upright and back under power.
The bridge is the "Demopolis Rooster Bridge" located some 10 miles west of
Demopolis on U.S. Highway 80 and across the Tombigbee River. The incident
occurred in the spring of 1979 during a spring flood. Barges has been released
to be picked up on the lower side, but the tug ran into trouble and wound up
turning over sideways as the pictures indicate, coming out on the other side.
The bridge was a draw bridge and has since been replaced by a clear span just
North of this location. Funding for the Rooster bridge came in part from an
auction of roosters held in Demopolis on August 14 and 15, 1919. Luckily no
one was injured and the tub is still in operation on the Tombigbee.
Austin Caldwell, Mayor
City of Demopolis
Demopolis, AL 36732
"It was either late 1978 or early 1979, I have forgotten exactly...
The river is the Tombigbee River and this happened to be
the record high water ever for that area. The towboat you see coming down on
the bridge is the Motor Vessel Cahaba owned by Warrior Gulf Navigation out of
Mobile, Alabama. Warrior Gulf is a subsidiary of Pittsburg Steel.
would haul iron pellets up to Birmingport and off-load to make steel plate. On
the return the barges were filled with coal for export at the McDuffie Coal
Terminal at the mouth of the Mobile River and at the head of Mobile Bay.
Bridge was the Old Rooster Bridge (since demolished and removed - I saw the
explosion to tear it down also) located below Demopolis, Alabama. The
land-side highway dead ends at the bluff, and you can still drive to this site
and imagine how high the river had to be to get to the bottom of the bridge...
The pass or Channel Span of the bridge was located on the far West side of the
river, or on the opposite bank from the photographer's standpoint. In normal
river flow, we would drop down near the rock bluff and steer through the
opening to pass southward with our tows of coal barges. Normal loads were six
barges, each measuring 195' X 35' and loaded to a 10' draft. This allowed each
barge to carry approximately 2,000 tons of coal (times six = 12,000 tons X
2000 pounds = 24 Million pounds of cargo.)
The boat is 1800 horsepower twin
engine diesel built in Pine Bluff, Arkansas. It is named after one of the
eight "friendly" Indian tribes. It is the Motor Vessel Cahaba. At the "sticks"
or helm is Captain Jimmie Wilkerson, a long time river pilot and was my
personal friend - since deceased. The river current was so very treacherous
that we were forced to drop down to the bridge in the slack(er) water on the
left descending bank and when we got down to the bridge, we uncoupled the boat
from the barges and let the barges drift down under the bridge. The bottom of
the bridge would "shave" the coal stacked in the barges off to a level
The next step was to back the vessel upriver and then go over to the
far west side and traverse the bridge's channel span with the boat, and run
down and catch the barges. It was just too dangerous to try to bring the
barges through the bridge span in the current.
Anyway, Jimmie dropped down
properly and with the entire rest of the crew standing on the barges for
safety, he began to reverse his engines to back away. His stern would have to
be kept directly pointed into the current or the boat would travel sideways
like a kite without it's tail. Captain Jim was a fine pilot, but he made a
small mistake and his stern was caught in the current, twisted sideways and
the river smashed him into the bridge sideways.
Notice that the boat
re-surfaced right side up on the down stream side. What luck you say? Nope,
WGN ballasted all their vessels with three to four feet of cement in the
bottom. The boat was like a little yellow rubber duckie, and came back up like
a duckie oughta do. The boat suffered major cosmetic damages, but little
flooding because of water tight doors, except in the pilothouse. Notice the
picture where the boat is not quite righted and you can see water pouring out
of the wheelhouse door. The chair washes out, and Jimmie told me he was
holding on to the controls with all his might to keep from going out the drain
and into the river.
He was very shook up and you can see him approach the tow
of barges downriver. Well he didn't get it together quite soon enough and he
smashed into the barges, causing further damage. I next saw Jimmie about a
month after this and we had a cup of coffee together and talked about the
incident. He was smoking a Camel non-filter but didn't even need an ashtray
beacuse his hands were still shaking too much for the ash to build up to any
degree. How do I know all this? I was on the boat that went through the bridge
immediately before the Cahaba. The motor vessel James E. Philpott made the
bridge and was headed south at close to 15 MPH. For all you who don't
understand, that is very fast on a commercial towboat with that much tonnage.
Glad to pass this on to everybody..."
-- Captain Michael L. Smith
From someone posting on RiverChar.com:
I'll try to be brief: April 28, 1979 -- the CAHABA, Capt. Jimmy Wilkerson, was
dropping 2 of his 4 barges through the east span of Rooster Bridge with intent
of running around thru the lift span and catching them below. Pilot Earl
Barnhart was on the tow helping the 2 deckhands take off safety wires, winch
wires, etc. Wilkerson underestimated the current and got too close to the
bridge, and for some reason they had taken loose all rigging except the
starboard. tow-knee wire. This wire pulled the starboard tow knee under the
bridge, and when it broke, the towknee popped up and hung in the bridge steel.
Now he's stuck, and the current laid the CAHABA onto the bridge, starboard
side to. When the lower port deck went awash, the vessel rolled, went through
the span, and came partially back up once it cleared. Capt. Wilkerson remained
at the sticks; however, at one point he was straddled the starboard pilot
house door frame, and the port front pilot house window blew out, filling the
place with water.
The boat with the blue trim you see is the CATHY PARKER; she was waiting above
for her turn. The CATHY radioed to the TALLAPOOSA, who was down the reach
below Blacks Bluff, that something had happened to the CAHABA. Capt. Gary
Grammer tied off the TALLAPOOSA's tow and light-boated to the CAHABA, where he
pushed her out into a flooded corn field. The starboard 16-149 of the CAHABA
was still running. The TALLAPOOSA then rescued the 3 crew members and secured
the 2 loose CAHABA barges.
The photographer was from the Linden, Alabama, Democrat, en route to Meridian,
Mississippi, and happened to get caught as the CAHABA blew for a draw at the
Rooster bridge. What kept these pictures out of circulation for so long (we
believe) was that the President of Warrior & Gulf, owners of the CAHABA,
bought the negatives immediately after they were published in the Linden
Democrat. I have a copy of the original published version, although it's a
little worse for wear after 23 years.
What righted the vessel? She had just topped off with fuel at Demopolis, 14
miles upstream. The CAHABA has one central fuel tank forward the engines; had
that tank been 1/2 full, she might have never come back