A vital Mississippi River bridge linking southeast Iowa and western Illinois was hit by runaway barges loaded with coal early this morning. Dena Gray-Fisher, spokeswoman for the Iowa Department of Transportation, says the Burlington span is closed to traffic until inspectors can determine it’s safe.

Gray-Fisher says: "Two of the barges, which were loaded, did strike the U.S. 34 Burlington bridge. The third barge avoided the U.S. 34 bridge but then struck the Burlington-Northern Railroad bridge, which is right downstream. That particular barge is still wedged in the bridge (which) is closed to rail traffic as well." She couldn’t say how long it’ll be before that bridge will be given the all-clear.

The D.O.T. has a bridge inspection team headed for the bridge but due to the fast-moving, high flood waters, Gray-Fisher says they won’t be able to do any scuba diving work around the pilings. That could delay the reopening of the bridge for some time, she says, but could not estimate how long it will be closed. She acknowledges, it’s going to be a huge inconvenience for many residents of the area on both sides of the river.

"It’s about a 60-mile out-of-the-way detour, unfortunately," Gray-Fisher says, "but the important thing is, there’s no traffic on this until the bridge is considered safe." Depending on the weight of the vehicles, traffic is being rerouted to other bridges, including those at: Davenport, Muscatine, Fort Madison and Keokuk. She says it’s still unclear who owns the three barges that struck the bridges, adding, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is looking into that issue. The flooded Mississippi River is expected to crest at Burlington on Saturday.