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This series of photos a selection from the 19 that appeared on the Internet. They show Cahaba, an 80-foot towboat, striking the Rooster Bridge over the Tombigbee River in western Alabama, getting forced under by the current and then popping up on the other side, apparently none the worse for the dunking. The pictures were taken 23 years ago by an amateur photographer. The shots first appeared in The Democrat-Reporter, a weekly newspaper in Linden, Ala. (Click to view series)
Old photos of towboat hitting bridge became an internet sensation
by Clarke Canfield

From Professional Mariner #64
June/July 2002

Hundreds of thousands of people the world over have seen the photos by now. The 19 shots show a frightening sequence of a towboat being sucked sideways under a bridge in a fast current on a flood-swollen Alabama river. As a score of awe-struck people watch from the bridge, the boat is pulled underwater beneath the span, only to pop up on the other side and right itself. Its engine still running, the boat limps to shore.

That accident happened 23 years ago and was caught on camera by an amateur photographer who happened to be there that day. But it wasn’t until this winter that the photos began showing up far and wide on the Internet. That’s where they took on a life of their own and captured the fascination of mariners and non-mariners across the country and around the world.

The photos appeared on at least 20 websites, became fodder in various chat rooms and compelled some people to start online discussion groups devoted solely to the accident. They were emailed among friends, family and acquaintances. Dozens of people telephoned the company that owned the boat and the newspaper that first published the shots.

Goodloe Sutton Sr., owner and publisher of The Democrat-Reporter, a weekly newspaper in Linden, Ala., said the photos generated plenty of local interest when he first published them in a two-page spread in late April 1979. But with a circulation of only 3,500 at the time — it’s now up to 7,000 — the paper could spread the death-defying story of M/V Cahaba only so far.

In late February and March 2002, however, the photos began showing up in serious fashion on the Internet, giving them a potential audience of millions. Suddenly, anybody anywhere with a computer and an Internet hookup could have access to the photos. Sutton, whose family has owned The Democrat-Reporter since 1917, said he is astounded by the stir they have created.

“It’s generated more interest now than back then when it happened,” Sutton said.

As is the case with a lot of things that show up on the Internet seemingly out of thin air, a lot of misinformation has been passed about regarding the accident.

This much is known: On April 19, 1979, M/V Cahaba, an 80-foot, 1,800-hp towboat, was bringing barges filled with coal down the Tombigbee River in western Alabama. According to The Democrat-Reporter’s account, torrential rains had pushed the river to record levels. With the late Capt. Jimmy Wilkerson at the helm, the boat approached Rooster Bridge, a drawbridge on Route 80, about 10 miles west of the town of Demopolis. When the draw rose, cars stopped, and people got out to watch the boat maneuver its way through the opening.

One of those people was the late Charles Barger, who lived in nearby Meridian, Miss. He began taking photos with a 35-mm camera he had with him. As Cahaba came downriver, it steered the barges toward a part of the bridge close to shore, where the currents are slower. It is a common practice to release barges under a bridge, close to shore, then throttle the towboat full steam astern, bring the boat through the open drawbridge and catch up with the barges downstream.

Apparently, Barger told the newspaper, the deck hands — who, by this time, were on the barges — had trouble disconnecting one of the wires that connected the towboat to one of the barges. Rather than releasing the barges and going through the open draw, Cahaba was drawn into the bridge and pushed sideways with the powerful current slamming it broadside.

Cahaba started rolling underwater as the current sucked it under the bridge. With the high water, there was very little clearance between the bottom of the bridge and the river. Barger could hear the boat scraping the bottom of the bridge as it made its way downstream the hard way.

“The adrenaline was unbelievable,” Barger told Sutton. “I just knew the boat had sunk and I had seen all those men drown.”

The spectators, by this time, had scattered in fear. But Barger ran to the downriver side of the bridge and kept snapping away, capturing the moment when Cahaba popped up on the other side. Water poured from its top deck and out of the pilothouse where a window had blown in. Wilkerson remained at the helm and steered the boat toward shore as another boat chased down the barges.

Amazingly, nobody was injured, but Wilkerson was certainly shaken. A person who identified himself as a riverboat captain wrote a message on an Internet message board in March saying he went through the Rooster Bridge shortly before Cahaba. He said Wilkerson was still distressed a month later when they had a cup of coffee and talked about the incident.

“He was smoking a Camel non-filter but didn’t even need an ashtray because his hands were still shaking too much for the ash to build up to any degree,” he said on the message board.

The bridge sustained minor damage, and the boat had an estimated $75,000 in damages, according to the newspaper account. But it was repaired and continued working the river until Warrior & Gulf Navigation Co. of Chickasaw, Ala., sold it a couple of years ago to Madison Coal & Supply of Charleston, W.Va.

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