Authorities will try to determine Saturday what caused two barges to break free on the Arkansas River in downtown Little Rock, prompting state police to shut down five bridges until inspectors determined that damage to two of them wasn't terribly serious.
The runaway barges struck the Interstate 30 bridge that connects the downtowns of Little Rock and North Little Rock on Friday night and also hit the Clinton Pedestrian Bridge, part of the cities' riverfront trail system.
"Out of an abundance of caution, the state police decided to close the highways," said Danny Straessle, a spokesman for the Arkansas Highway and Transportation Department. Two spans carrying city streets and another pedestrian also were closed after the towboat operator notified state police that he feared he had struck the bridges.
The bridges were closed for about an hour, snarling traffic along the interstate and in the River Market entertainment district on the south bank of the river.
Bill Marlow, a highway department bridge inspector, said he noted damage to a pier protection berm beneath the I-30 span but determined that the bridge itself was not harmed. A pier protector beneath a pedestrian bridge near the Clinton Presidential Library also was struck.
"They did what they were supposed to do," Marlow said.
The towboat operator caught up with the barges downstream and pushed them into the river bank before they threatened the Interstate 440 bridge about five miles downstream.
The barges got loose at around 8:30 p.m., well after the evening rush.
No injuries were reported.
Typically three or four towboats go through the city daily, according to Gene Higginbotham, the executive director of the Arkansas Waterways Commission. He said typical river traffic on a Friday night would be recreational boaters, but a small-craft advisory was posted at the North Little Rock boat ramp, leaving social traffic lighter than usual.
Battalion Chief Roger Robinson of the North Little Rock Fire Department said the barges were carrying coal, wheat and fly ash, a waste product from burning coal. The Federal Highway Administration says fly ash can be used in concrete.
Robinson said the towboat operator and another operator had wrangled the barges and were working to reconnect them to the tow, and could not be reached for comment.