NewburyportNews.com, Newburyport, MA

December 6, 2012

Rising from the harbor

Sunken excavator gets pulled up, dredging to resume

By Angeljean Chiaramida
STAFF WRITER

---- — HAMPTON, N.H. — Dented and dripping, the 35,000-pound excavator recently dumped unceremoniously under the Hampton Harbor Bridge rose from the depths yesterday morning, without incident, while a bevy of bystanders recorded every moment on their cell phones.

But the retrieval of the machine might not be the end of the story for the company responsible for its accidental swim in local waters. Government agencies are still investigating the incident, and fines could be in the offing.

Lifting the excavator from its temporary resting place in 16 feet of water was the physical portion of the aftermath of an incident that took place during the Army Corps of Engineers’ current dredge of the harbor. The problem began around 10 p.m. Thursday, when workers with the Army Corps’ dredge contractor, Southwind of Indiana, noticed their unmanned barge was taking on water in the outer harbor. The 10-foot-tall, 28-foot-long John Deere 160D LC excavator was on the barge, because it’s used to couple dredge piping together, Army Corps officials said.

Using a push boat, Southwind workers attempted to get the barge and its cargo back to the dock in Seabrook. But the barge’s list became too severe, the cable securing the excavator snapped and it slid into the sea around midnight.

Thankfully no one was injured, but the excavator landed smack dab under the middle of the bridge, in the boating channel of what’s the busiest commercial harbor in the Granite State.

Considered a serious hazard to navigation, the Coast Guard set up a 100-yard security zone around the machine using buoys. In addition, the Coast Guard monitored the situation, and provided personnel on the bridge yesterday morning during the recovery effort as well as a boat in the harbor.

According to Bob Casoli, senior construction representative for the Army Corps of Engineers, Southwind officials made the arrangements for salvage. The company hired East Boston-based BTT Marine Construction Company, which sent its barge crane to the scene. Portsmouth’s Black Dog Divers were also hired to help secure the lines to the excavator.

According to BTT General Manager Scott Haggerty, the barge with its 140-foot-tall crane took 10 hours to get to the mouth of Hampton Harbor on Tuesday, pushed by its tug all the way. Then, unexpected sea conditions at the harbor caused problems.

“We were going to set up in the harbor (Tuesday) night,” Haggerty said. “But the water’s rough at the mouth of the harbor and it was too shallow for our tug to push the barge in. We had to get another tug to get us in.”

Haggerty said the emergency job wasn’t a difficult one, but Southwind had to access the right equipment to get it done right.

“It’s all about finding a crane with the capacity you need to do something like this,” Haggerty said. “Fortunately, we have a 100-ton crane and were able to come.”

Haggerty didn’t want to quote dollar figures, but he said the hourly cost to bring down the crane and barge, as well as two tugboats, won’t be insignificant. But, he added, the cost of recovery could be second in expense if government agencies step in and assess fines and penalties, due to the multi-day hazard to navigation the incident created.

“(Southwind) has the Army Corps behind them to back them up,” Haggerty said. “But if someone wants to be difficult, it could get interesting.”

Once anchored down to the harbor floor, BTT’s crew, along with Black Dog Divers, attached four lines to the excavator and after closing the bridge for a few minutes for safety, the crane lifted the mechanical digger up quite easily, then maneuvered it beside and onto the barge.

Haggerty said the plan was to bring it back to BTT’s yard, where he believes it might be saved.

“It wasn’t running when it went under, so the saltwater would not have run through the engine,” he said. “The biggest problem is the computer (system). It’s probably ruined.”

Water cascading out of its yellow body, the excavator sat on the barge deck. Aside from some interesting dents on its sides, the excavator — which appeared to be a Hertz equipment rental — didn’t look too badly damaged. Haggerty thought after draining the fluids, it might be able to be overhauled for continued use.

According to Coast Guardsman at the bridge, the excavator had only 30 gallons of diesel fuel in it, but there didn’t seem to be a lot of oily discharge visible in the water. Such a small amount in a harbor with such a strong tide probably wouldn’t cause a hazard to marine life.

However, a representative from New Hampshire’s Department of Environmental Services was monitoring the situation yesterday. Any decision on possible penalties would be determined in the future, she said.

Lt. Commander T. Balunis was on the Coast Guard cruiser in the harbor yesterday during the recovery effort. He was not available for comment on the status of the investigation into the incident, or if fines and penalties would be forthcoming..