Thousands of motorists were left stranded yesterday morning on the West Bank of Demerara after a barge and tug, helped by a strong current, drifted down the river and slammed into the Demerara Harbour Bridge, just after midnight.
The bridge, which was shifted out of alignment, was closed for emergency repairs, with vehicular and marine traffic halted.
It will take a number of days before normalcy to resume, with light traffic, barring any unforeseen circumstances, expected to be allowed by tomorrow, authorities said.
It is estimated that more than 100,000 persons who either work or conduct business in the city, are living in the West Demerara area.
Emergency measures involving the police and other law enforcement officials were put into place to deal with the crowds who rushed to the aging speedboat stelling at Vreed-en-Hoop.
Compounding the situation was that yesterday was the start of the new school year.
Yesterday afternoon, the crowds had swelled, with children caught in the confusion.
There was a frustrating backup for hours on the West Bank public road with drivers blaring their horns in frustration in the morning.
Minister of Public Infrastructure, David Patterson, during a midday press conference at the Peter’s Hall headquarters of the Demerara Harbour Bridge Corporation, disclosed that the crewmen and captain who sent out ‘May Day’ calls were all taken into custody and are being questioned.
The crewmen initially claimed that the barge and tug broke loose of their anchor and drifted from the Diamond area.
Pulled by the tide, it slammed into the floating bridge at two different points, breaking critical suspensions.
A section of the bridge immediately separated leaving a lone car, driven by a woman, in the opening that was created. Fortunately, the woman was able to exit, badly shaken with the car suffering significant damage.
Minister Patterson said that there will be emergency measures and temporary river lights to allow speedboats to operate beyond the normal time until 10pm.
Four vessels have been placed on standby to transport passengers for emergency situations.
The situation has brought into sharp focus the critical importance of that one bridge which has been in existence for 41 years.
Patterson disclosed that local and international technical personnel are currently assessing bid documents for investors in relation to a new bridge that has been earmarked to be located at Houston.
In the midday press conference, General Manager of the Demerara Harbour Bridge Corporation, Rawlston Adams, disclosed that the tug and barge – the latter a Panamanian-registered vessel, “broadsided” the bridge around 00:35hrs.
The barge was loaded with material.
Two different areas, west of the retractor spans, were hit.
During the assessment, engineers found severe damage, with the bridge out of alignment between the retractor and high span.
While some work was done to replace a connecting post, a strong tide forced work to be abandoned around midday.
Divers will have to work to connect anchor chairs, with a number of damaged posts to be repaired.
According to the General Manager, the problems that manifested forced a decision to not open the retractor span, hence marine traffic transiting was suspended until repairs have been carried out.
The official said that the bridge’s management, understanding the magnitude of the problems, were working around the clock with staffers.
Present at the press conference too was Minister within the Ministry of Public Infrastructure, Jaipaul Sharma.
Patterson disclosed that a ‘May Day’ call was made but it came too late from the crewmembers of the barge and tug.
The Harbour Master received the call.
However, according to the Minister, while the Maritime Administration Department (MARAD) has overall responsibilities for safety on the waterways, the captain also has obligations.
With the tide changing every six hours, Patterson said it was found the vessel was outside anchoring point, which signals that something went wrong.
The minister said that after realising the implications, personnel from the law enforcement arm of Government were sent out to the Vreed-en-Hoop and Stabroek areas to control the crowds.
In all, 55 water taxis were operating, with decisions made to operate until 10pm.
Rented portable lights helped the late traffic on the river.
Additionally, four vessels were placed to conduct emergency trips, including medical situations.
While the officials were not setting timelines, Adams is hoping for an opening to light traffic this afternoon.
Marine traffic is likely not going to be traversing today.
Minister Patterson made it clear that new measures involving the use of MARAD personnel to help vessels through the bridge will likely be introduced.
Patterson ruled out placing ferries, noting the stellings at Vreed-en-Hoop and Stabroek are beyond the conditions that would be right.
On average, the bridge caters for about 12,000 vehicles crossing back and forth daily.
With the beginning of the new school year yesterday, the bridge’s management was catering for at least 4,000 vehicles coming to the city for the morning trip. There were even plans for an extended two-lane.
Asked about liability insurance, the minister said that all vessels over 500 gross tonnes have to be insured.
At the CID headquarters, Eve Leary, it was expected that the crewmembers would be subjected to breathalyzer tests.
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