The accident happened early Sunday morning when the towing vessel Safety Quest was pushing three barges loaded with scrap metal. Coast Guard Captain Marcus Woodring says the lead barge smashed into a Baytown power line and remained standing, thanks to the support of one of the barges.
"Fortunately for us, the power to those lines was secured at the time, Centerpoint Energy was doing some maintenance on them. We did not know that at the time, so we evacuated the tugboat to make sure everybody on board would be safe. We've since established a security zone both above and below the point of the incident. The ship channel right now is closed between markers 105 and 124. Once we do get the ship channel opened, it'll be a couple of days probably to clear the backlog."
The barge that slammed into the tower is owned by American Electric Power based in Columbus, Ohio. Company spokesman Keith Darling says they operate barges and towboats from Pittsburgh, to Chicago to New Orleans to Houston, and with no accidents—until Sunday.
"Our immediate concern was for our employees and the public and environment. And once we learned that everyone was safe and sound, then we immediately came down to Houston to work with the coast guard on the investigation."
The tower is owned by Centerpoint Energy. Company spokesman Robert Gordon says power had been shut off to the line to allow crews to service a nearby tower. Gordon says the damaged structure will have to be replaced.
"Yes, well we're most concerned right now of clearing up the situation, and then we'll decide whether or not we do need to replace that tower, probably we do. But right now, our major concern is the safety of our employees, and to secure this tower and to get the ship channel opened up, as quickly as we can."
The longer the repair takes, the number of ships affected by the closure will grow. The Coast Guard's Capt Woodring says that could cause an economic loss of nearly a billion dollars.
"Those figures and the figure that I use is 322 million dollars a day, and that's based on the Port of Houston Authority's economic impact assessment, that indicates that they have 118 billion dollars a year, in economic impact. So you break that down, 322 million dollars a day. Now that includes the jobs, the refining, all the things that go on up and down the ship channel."
Woodring says the channel will remain closed to maritime traffic until at least Tuesday evening, Wednesday at the latest.