Home Up

Riverboat Accident

Published 07/14/08
Photos contributed by Gary Richardson

Please note the following story was written by
Dean White
This text for this story was found at Littleriverbooks.com

On April 28, 1979, a ferry boat named the Cahaba intended to cross the Rooster Bridge on the Tombigbee River in Alabama.

However when the bridge did not raise for the boat, the Cahaba resorted to alternative methods.

This is a recount of the story.

"I was working at Warrior & Gulf Navigation at the time as a pilot, and was actually downstream 40-50 miles from the Rooster Bridge when the incident occurred.

River conditions were extremely bad that spring; one of the highest rises on the Tombigbee. Current was so swift around the bridges that we were "double-tripping" four barge tows (two at a time).

At this particular bridge, (the Rooster, so named because it was paid for in part by the sale of a certain breed of rooster that was highly prized; Woodrow Wilson and Clemenceau of France are listed as buyers), we practiced what we call “dropping 'em through" the east span. We pointed the barges under the east span of the bridge, where the current was less severe, cutting them loose from the boat, then running the boat through the lift span, and catching them back below the bridge.

This was Capt. Jimmy Wilkerson’s intent; this was why the first picture shows him so close to the east span. He had his two deckhands and Pilot Earl Barnhardt out on the tow to remove all rigging, and throw the winch wires off. Unfortunately, for some reason, they had neglected to take the starboard tow-knee wire off, and this was what pulled him into the bridge structure.

You can see that the starboard tow-knee catches under the steel of the bridge; the wire was attached to the timberhead of the stern barge, and it pulled the boat into a starboard list. When the tow-knee struck the bridge, the wire broke, and the top of the knee came up and hung in the bridge steel.

At that point, the raging current took over, and laid the Cahaba, starboard side to, against the bridge. Once the port lower deck went awash, there was no chance for recovery. Capt. Wilkerson, in effect, took a 37-foot tall towboat, and put it through a 11-foot span.

The photos were taken by a reporter from the “Linden (Ala.) Democrat,” a nearby small-town newspaper. This person was en route to Meridian, Miss., that morning and happened to arrive at the bridge, along with several other witnesses, while the main span was lifted to let the Cahaba pass. He had no idea what he was about to witness; he did, however, have the foresight to keep snapping as the event unfolded.

When Capt. Wilkerson saw he was not going to recover the vessel, he yelled into his loudspeaker, “All right, y'all, this ain't no fire drill. Get off the damn bridge!” Once the boat laid over and went under the bridge, those watching thought for sure it was sunk, and all aboard gone with it. They were all relieved to see the Cahaba right itself, with Capt. Wilkerson still at the controls.

One of the two Detroit 16-149s was still running; the port one had flooded out. Capt. Wilkerson said, at one point, he was straddled across the port wheelhouse door, when the front window popped out, and the wheelhouse filled with water.

The Mv. Tallapoosa was just downstream from the bridge when the incident occurred; Capt. Gary Grammer got word from the Mv. Cathy Parker, waiting above the bridge for her turn, that something had happened to the Cahaba.

Capt. Grammer tied off his tow, and raced upstream as best he could to assist. The Tallapoosa caught the Cahaba a ways below the bridge, and shoved her out into a flooded corn field. The barges were then caught, and the three crew members on them rescued.

What made the Cahaba miraculously recover and right itself?

Main reason: the vessel had just topped off with fuel at Demopolis, Ala., just 13 miles north of where the accident happened. Therefore, the fuel tank was full. There was no shifting of weight as the vessel laid over.

It was somewhat akin to those punching bags from years gone by; when you knocked them down they just righted themselves again. Had she only been half full of fuel, she probably would have never come back upright.

The reason these pictures stayed out of circulation for so long? Speculation is that the president of Warrior & Gulf bought the negatives immediately after they were published in the “Linden Democrat.” I have a copy of the original paper they were printed in; it is now old, yellow and crumbling. We all thought that they would wind up in “The Waterways Journal,” and were a bit surprised when they didn't; but I believe Mr. Nick Barchie had something to do with that.

Several years later, the Rooster Bridge was replaced with a high rise a few miles north, and the original bridge was taken out, much to the relief of all of us who navigated the Tombigbee.”

Please note - story accompanying pictures written by:

Dean White
Marine Superintendent

SSQQ Front Page Parties/Calendar of Events Jokes
SSQQ Information Schedule of Classes Writeups
SSQQ Archive Newsletter History of SSQQ