Popp's Ferry boat channel could be closed for a week

Photo courtesy Tara Dinh
Photo courtesy Tara Dinh
Photo courtesy Mike Filippi
Photo courtesy Mike Filippi

By Brad Kessie - bio | email

BILOXI, MS (WLOX) - Biloxi's Popp's Ferry bridge is closed, and it won't reopen anytime soon. The Coast Guard says the boat channel at Popp's Ferry may be off limits to boaters for a week.

Early Friday morning, a collection of eight barges slammed into the bridge.  One barge sank.  And a 60 foot section of the roadway collapsed.

Just one car was on the bridge when the barges slammed into concrete pilings.  That car belonged to the Popp's Ferry Road bridgetender Marge Johnson.  When the ordeal was over, and she safely returned to land, Johnson was asked if she was okay.

"I am now, thank you," the bridgetender said.

Johnson has raised the Popp's Ferry drawbridge for five years and never had a mishap.  That changed around 7:20 Friday morning.

"I had opened my bridge for the barges and the ship to come through," Johnson explained.  "And then all of a sudden, I saw that he wasn't going to make that turn there."

A barge -- pushed by a tugboat named the Cheryl Stegbauer -- rammed into the Popp's Ferry bridge. The bridge was suddenly shaking.

"And then I started shaking and praying that he wouldn't take the house out," Johnson remembered.

Her bridge house survived.  But a 60 foot span of Popp's Ferry Road collapsed.  Sections of Biloxi's main evacuation road disappeared in the back bay.  The scene, and its timing, stunned Biloxi's mayor.

"There's 35,000 cars a day that goes across this bridge," A.J. Holloway said.  "How there wasn't a car on there, or a vehicle, or a school bus at that time, on that span, is just amazing to me."

Johnson's office sits perilously close to the edge of the span that collapsed.  With the road gone, and the drawbridge up, rescue teams had to devise a plan to get the trapped bridge tender out of the office, and out of harm's way.  They had Johnson climb down two ladders and into a rescue boat.  She returned to shore about an hour after the accident.

It must have been scary, somebody said to her.

"I'm still shaking inside, hon," she responded.

While she was being rescued, Biloxi fire personnel secured the accident area.

"I don't want anybody on that bridge," a firefighter yelled.

So, public works crews blocked access to the bridge's front entrance.  And police diverted traffic away from the area.

Rodney McGilvary represented the Biloxi Police Department at a news briefing late Friday morning.

"It was really no problem at all rerouting traffic north and south.  It went well," he said.

Mayor Holloway said the accident was another reminder that Biloxi needs to improve the Popp's Ferry bridge.

"I think this is a statement for a new bridge that we've been trying to get for the last 10-12 years now," he said.

The more immediate concern is what the city should do to fix the damaged bridge.  A span is gone, and pilings are cracked.  Engineers were at the accident scene all day, trying to figure out the most efficient way to repair and reopen the Popp's Ferry Bridge.  But they aren't saying how long that may take.

The Coast Guard is interviewing the pilot of the tugboat.  That agency is also waiting for the tugboat company to submit a salvage.  The channel at Popp's Ferry Road could be closed to boat traffic for as much as seven days.

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