2 barges break free in flooding, float down the Potomac

Two construction barges broke free from their moorings amid flooding on the Potomac River over the weekend and floated miles downstream before being snagged by underwater materials, a National Park Service official said.

The larger barge carrying an excavator and other equipment got loose Saturday night but didn’t travel far initially, Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historical Park spokesperson Christiana Hanson said.

Officials were brainstorming how to safely recapture that barge when a second barge broke free Sunday afternoon as floodwaters rose further and both barges began to travel downstream, she said.

“The river is wild when waters rise and the river becomes dangerous,” Hanson said. “We wanted to make sure people were safe.”

The goal is to remove the barges from the river as soon as possible, but it could take weeks before retrieval teams attempt to recover the barges.

“Pulling them out of the water, this is going to be a multi-week affair. It takes a long time to go from spring water levels to summer water levels and that is when it is going to be safest to remove a lot of this equipment from the river,” said Hanson said.

Hanson said a careful eye is being kept on the break-away barges.

“We have contractors on site and they will remain there 24/7, monitoring the barges, making sure they are not moving unexpectedly,” she said.

The barges traveled miles along the river before they became stuck, Hanson said. The smaller barge was caught near the still active Dam 4 in the Sharpsburg area and the larger barge was caught on the remnants of Dam 3 north of Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, she said.

Loudoun County Sheriff’s Office tweeted video of the larger barge stopped in the racing waters Sunday, noting that officials kept watch out of concern that the barges might strike bridges crossing the river.

The barges were secured by lines, but their pontoons were punctured as they drifted, which means their own weight helps to hold them in place, Hanson said.

The barges were part of a project to rehabilitate a stone retaining wall and stabilize the towpath along a section of the historic canal near McMahons Mill in the Williamsport area, which often gets flooding that makes the area impassable, Hanson said.

Heavy rains fell in the region Friday and Saturday. The Potomac rose to more than 19.5 feet (5.9 meters) in Williamsport early Sunday from just above 4 feet (1.2 meters) early Thursday morning, according to National Weather Service data.

WTOP’s Dick Uliano contributed to this report.

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