Chaos at Georgetown, Vreed-en-Hoop Stellings after barge slams into Demerara Harbour Bridge
…thousands stranded as vehicular traffic halted
By Rupa Seenaraine
On the first day of the new academic year, a catastrophe happened when a barge and tug slammed into the southern side of the Demerara Harbour Bridge just after midnight, thus shifting the spans which connect the structure and causing a shutdown to vehicular traffic.
In the wee hours on Monday morning, notices were sent out that the structure would be closed for emergency works and the only alternative to cross the Demerara River was via the speedboat service, operating at Stabroek and Vreed-en-Hoop stellings.
Whilst the boat service would usually commence operations at 06:00h every morning, provisions were made for the commuters to cross earlier. However, both stellings saw an influx of passengers in a rush to meet their destinations.
When Guyana Times arrived at the Vreed-en-Hoop Stelling in Region Three (Essequibo Islands-West Demerara), the area was cordoned off from the Vreed-en-Hoop junction and persons were forced to walk to the docking area as Police ranks tamed the situation. School-aged children hurried to make it into the next available boat as they feared reaching late on the very first day of school. Several boats were lined up as a swarm of passengers trickled into the vessels amid the confusion.
A mother of three explained that she was unaware of the situation and two of her kids were already late to school. She too, lamented about the inconvenience faced after having to use the boat service.
“I was planning to use the bridge as usual, but we just got wind of the fact that the bridge is not working. Now, I just dropped off my daughter and I’m going to carry the other two. With all the trouble to cross, they will be late and it’s the first day of school,” she expressed.
Over at the Stabroek Stelling, a similar scenario was observed as multiple boats loaded dozens of passengers and escorted them.
Officials of the Maritime Administration Department (MARAD) fixed themselves to organise the crowd in orderly lines. Police Commissioner Leslie James was present on site, along with other senior ranks, as he positioned that the situation was brought under control.
“We have the Deputy Commissioners [of] Administrations and Operations, Commander of A Division (Georgetown-East Bank Demerara), the Traffic Chief, another person in charge of impact base and other officers. We’re all here to make an assessment as to what is taking place. So far, reports and what we’re witnessing, everything is under control,” he told this publication.
While the morning hours eventually got somewhat organised, there was a complete shift in the afternoon proceedings.
Passengers fainted after waiting for some time to board speedboats at the Stabroek Stelling while some complained that the movement was stagnant and complained about the toxic air.
One woman was even seen hyperventilating. Adding to that, persons with baggage were given preference over school children, who were lost in the crowd.
General Manager of the Bridge Corporation, Rawlston Adams and Public Infrastructure Minister David Patterson provided clarity on the seriousness of the issue.
The Public Infrastructure Minister told the media that preliminary investigations revealed that the barge was beyond its anchorage location. After the vessel started drifting, a distress call was sent out but no one on-board spoke English. The crew members were detained as investigations continued.
“The crew and the barge have been detained by the Police…The preliminary assessment from MARAD suspected that the barge was outside its anchorage point. They also suspected that the barge was not properly manned. When the barge became adrift, the crew was manned by Cubans and Panamanians. Apparently, it’s a Panamanian-registered vessel. They issued a mayday because it was drifting from Diamond-Grove. Very late, they gave the mayday and it was received by the Light House,” Patterson asserted.
He insisted that introspections should be made to prevent such occurrences in the future and they might have to mandate operators to have all barges powered by a tugboat. According to him, 55 water taxis came to the rescue and aided the massive undertaking.
Meanwhile, Adams said that the barge came into contact with the bridge at two locations, and the structure was shifted from its aligned position between the high and retractor spans. During the collision, it was loaded with a gravel-like material.
“The barge came into contact at two locations, span 13 and again at span 16. We saw some severe damages. The bridge is completely out of alignment between the high span and the retractor span,” he said.
Emergency actions were deployed to remedy the situation but it was hindered by unfavourable tidal conditions for a few hours. For the morning period, workers managed to install temporary decking and some of the connecting posts. In total, nine connecting posts were to be changed along with nine anchor chains.
“This morning, we managed to replace the connecting post at span 13. That was to facilitate us moving over to span 16. We had to put in some temporary decking…We had to suspend all works due to the tide. The tide is really against us. We expect that to change,” Adams stated.
He later added that all marine transits were also suspended since the unaligned structure presents unpredictability to the operation of the retractor span.
“The reason we have had to suspend all marine transit is the fact that you see the bridge is out of align. For the retractor span to close, it has to be in line. We cannot take the chance to open the retractor span”.
The total cost attached to the damaged bridge has not been ascertained. However, it was related that the connecting posts will cost $5 million, while the chains are in vicinity of $4 million.
The Bridge is the main thoroughfare for commuters to drive across to the capital city. An estimated 11,000 persons would use the structure in the morning hours, but the DHB management was expecting maximum traffic Monday morning, since it was the beginning of a new academic year.
Provisions were made for the boat service to be extended until 22:00h along with four emergency vessels on standby. Authorities are hoping to facilitate light traffic on the bridge by this evening.