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Rogue Construction Barges Float Down Potomac Near Harpers Ferry, W.V.

Tue May 10, 2022 - Northeast Edition
WTOP Radio & WRC-TV News4

A barge carrying construction equipment was seen floating in the high water of the Potomac River in West Virginia. (Loudoun County Sheriff's Office photo)
A barge carrying construction equipment was seen floating in the high water of the Potomac River in West Virginia. (Loudoun County Sheriff's Office photo)

Two construction barges are now stopped in the Potomac River after breaking loose the weekend of May 7 to 8 and barreling their way down choppy waters in West Virginia, authorities announced.

The pair of barges were carrying a Caterpillar excavator and other equipment when they got free of their moorings and floated down the high waters of the river, heading toward Harpers Ferry, W.V., according to Christiana Hanson, a spokesperson of the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historical Park.

The Loudoun County Sheriff's Office in Virginia told WTOP Radio in Washington that one of the barges got stuck just before reaching Harpers Ferry, alleviating some concern that it could damage the town's bridges. All bridges between Loudoun County and Maryland remain open, the sheriff's department added.

"The larger barge is currently held in place at the remnants of Dam 3, and the smaller of the two barges has been caught below Dam 4," Hanson explained to Washington's WRC-TV News 4. "Contractors are monitoring to ensure that they remain in place."

The National Park Service (NPS) told WTOP Radio that the second barge stopped near the National Conservation Training Center in Shepherdstown, W.V.

The NPS said one of the barges broke free on the evening of May 7 amid heavy rain, and the other shook loose the next afternoon before both vessels started drifting down the churning waters of the river.

Both sites where the barges became snared on the river are northwest of Harpers Ferry.

Barges Temporarily Secured on the Potomac

To stop them, crews battled whitewater to deflate their pontoons so their weight would be greater than their flotation devices, and later secured them in place with ropes, Hanson explained.

WTOP reported that water levels are higher than usual on the Potomac River after a weekend of persistent rain that soaked the region from west of Harpers Ferry to areas throughout the Washington, D.C., area.

The park service said the pedestrian bridge at Harpers Ferry National Historical Park was cleared and locked on both sides, pending lower water levels.

Jessica Stover, who posted pictures and video of one barge to Facebook, told WTOP Radio that there was a big crowd along the river at Bakerton, W.V., trying to get a look at the runaway floating platform.

"There were police on the other side of the river [in Maryland], kind of following it and keeping an eye on it, and I know that they were concerned about the bridges down river," she told the radio station.

While at the scene, CNBC photojournalist Van Applegate spoke to WRC-TV that flood waters had likely pushed one of the barges free.

"The water level has risen almost 6 feet in the last 24 hours, so it likely broke the shoring line that it was connected to," he said May 8. "[The barge] has meandered through the Potomac River up and down these S curves. [It] ping-ponged its way down to this level."

He also posted on Twitter, "Barge belonging to contractor broke loose in Washington County MD on the Potomac. Has crossed over several dams. Heading toward Harpers Ferry. Park service following the barge. White water conditions making it tough to stop. Bridges in area closed."

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