By Angeljean Chiaramida
---- — HAMPTON — A 35,000-pound excavator sits in 16 feet water under the Hampton Harbor Bridge, awaiting rescue after a mishap during the Army Corps of Engineers’ dredge of the harbor.
Yesterday, officials from the Army Corps of Engineers said the problem began about 10 p.m. on Thursday night, when representatives from its dredge contractor, Southwind of Indiana, noticed its unmanned barge in the outer harbor was taking on water. The 10-foot-tall, 28-foot-long John Deere 160 LC excavator was on the barge, because it’s used to couple dredge piping together, Army Corps officials said.
Southwind personnel tried to sail the barge back from the outer harbor to the dock along Seabrook Harbor, but ran out of luck about halfway there. The barge continued to list, tilting so much the excavator snapped its cable and slid off into cold, dark waters around midnight.
Sinking under the middle of the Hampton Harbor Bridge, the excavator is in the boating channel and considered a hazard to navigation, according to Coast Guard officials. That’s especially true since the mechanical digger can’t be seen above water.
Called by Southwind when the problem began, Coast Guardsmen from Portsmouth Station responded to oversee the incident, but did not close the harbor. Coast Guard officials established a 100-yard security zone around the excavator to warn boaters, according to Chris Berry, operation unit controller of the Coast Guard’s Portland, Maine, communication and operation center, which oversees Northern New England waters. The zone is marked by a large orange buoy.
Army Corps of Engineer senior construction representative Bob Casoli said that Southwind officials have moved quickly to salvage the situation. They contacted a marine crane company from Boston, which has been making its way up the coast and was scheduled to arrive last night. Black Dog Divers, of Portsmouth, will also work on the recovery effort, Casoli said.
The original plan was for the crane to lift the excavator out of the water this morning, but that was postponed because the sea conditions were not the best, according to the dredge’s Army Corps project engineer Richard Heidebrecht. The new date for the recovery is not yet determined.
The dredge, which began in mid-November, was ahead of schedule prior to the incident, Casoli said, and this incident is not expected to delay the effort for long. Although a dredge window exists until mid-March, Casoli said the project will most likely be completed by sometime in January.
The one good thing about the unfortunate incident is that no one was injured, according to all involved.
As for the future life of the excavator after an extended saltwater submersion, that might not be too terrific.
“I’m not a mechanical technician,” Berry said, “but I can’t imagine this has done it much good.”