Dropped objects don’t come much bigger than the Jefferson Avenue Bridge over the Rouge River about 10 kilometres southwest of Detroit, Michigan. It is not especially unusual for ships to hit bridges but fairly rare for bridges to hit ships,only fairly rare because it has happened before under similar circumstances – an impaired bridge operator.
About 0212 on May 12, 2013, the bulk carrier Herbert C. Jackson was en route to deliver a load of taconite pellets, a type of iron ore, to the Severstal ore processing terminal in Dearborn, Michigan. As the vessel approached the Jefferson Avenue Bridge, the master slowed and sounded one long and one short blast of the ship’s whistle to notify the bridge tender of the approach and request a bridge opening. While waiting, the master brought the vessel to a near-complete stop. About 0205, the master saw the bridge begin to open, and when the drawbridge was fully open and green lights were visible on each bridge section, he increased speed.
Then he saw the bridge quickly lower in front of the vessel about 0211, and immediately set the engine full astern. He ordered the mates on the bow and stern to drop anchors, and the stern anchor was deployed. The master recognized impact was imminent and sounded the general alarm. Crewmembers quickly left the bow area before deploying the bow anchor.
A minute later, about 0212, the bridge struck the vessel’s bow. The stern anchor was retrieved, and the master backed the vessel away from the bridge, anchored, and reported the accident to the United States Coast Guard.
Wayne County Road Commission personnel determined the bridge control system was working properly at the time of the accident.
Damage to the vessel was estimated at $5,000. The bridge, a registered historic structure, was extensively damaged and expected to remain closed until 2015 for repair and restoration at a cost of $50 million.. No one was injured.
Rouge River police officers responding to the accident observed that the bridge operator appeared to be intoxicated and transported her to a nearby hospital for drug and alcohol testing under county regulations before Coast Guard investigators arrived. The bridge operator’s blood alcohol level was found to exceed the legal limit. She had been employed by the Wayne County Road Commission for 17 years with no record of prior issues, counseling, or warnings, and had worked as a bridge operator for 8 years. The bridge operator accepted full responsibility for the accident and her employment was terminated following a Wayne County Road Commission disciplinary hearing.
This would appear to be one of those cases not envisioned by Colregs and it is difficult to fault the vessel’s officers, after all, like the arrival of the Spanish Inquisition, no-one expects a bridge to drop on one’s deck. Yet a very similar event occurred in 2001 when the railway Bridge 11 in the Welland Canal, at Allanburg, Ontario, Canada was lowered onto deck of the bulk carrier Windoc by a bridge operator probably impaired by medication or alcohol.
It is unlikely that these will be last of this type of incident and emphasises the need for appropriate monitoring of this responsible for operating moving bridges.