Scope of Maine-NH Memorial Bridge damage still unclear after oil tanker accident

Posted March 11, 2014, at 6:16 a.m.
Last modified March 11, 2014, at 1:12 p.m.

PORTSMOUTH, N.H. — Inspectors are continuing to assess the damage to Memorial Bridge after an oil tanker struck a fender panel protecting a support pier early Friday.

State transportation officials are optimistic the span did not sustain structural damage but are awaiting results of an underwater inspection Tuesday morning.

Divers from Maine will be looking for any unseen damage below the waterline, said Bill Boynton, a spokesman for the N.H. Department of Transportation.

“We still need to get a diver back into the water to look at the bridge pier below the waterline, but there is still no indication of any structural damage to the bridge,” he said.

The 600-foot Seapride struck the pier three on the Maine side of the channel at about 5:15 a.m. Friday. The vessel was outbound on the Piscataqua River after offloading diesel fuel at the Sprague Oil terminal in Newington.

The Malta-flagged ship sustained hull damage on its port side but the impact did not damage its watertight compartments, according to the U.S. Coast Guard. The cause of the accident is still not known.

“The investigation still continues,” Coast Guard Lt. Scott McCann said. “As far as fault or the reason why it happened, that will be part of the investigation.”

A pilot was guiding the tanker downriver at the time of the accident. Tugboats were traveling on the port and starboard sides of the vessel but it’s not clear if they were helping it maneuver through the narrow bridge opening.

The Seapride was allowed to continue to the Gulf Terminal in Portland after the bridge accident. Coast Guard investigators inspected the vessel there and allowed it to leave for its next destination.

Fender panels designed to protect the bridge appeared to deflect the vessel away from the concrete pier. The impact tore off one of the panels and damaged at least one more.

“A diver located the fender panel that was sheared off by the tanker early Saturday morning. The 10,000-pound panel was floated to the surface with airbags on Saturday and lifted out of the Piscataqua River by a crane on a barge,” Boynton said.

The $81.4 million Memorial Bridge opened to traffic in August after about 20 months of construction. It carries Route 1 traffic between Portsmouth and Kittery, Maine. Motor vehicle traffic was not affected by the accident.

Distributed by MCT Information Services

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