“Capt’n, we got us a mess up here – a huge fire. Can you see it?” Dex radioed over the walkie-talkie to Billy in the pilot house of the Mauville.
“What’s happening? I can’t see a dern thing in this fog. I heard lots of noise though.”
“I heard a noise too, and looked up to see a train derail and plunge off the bridge right in front of us. I thought it was gonna land right on top o’ me an the barges.”
“Train derail? I don’t know what a train bridge is doing over the channel here anyway.”
“Do you think we caused the crash when we bumped the bridge?” Dex asked.
“I don’t see how. We barely tapped it. You said there wernt no damage. I’m idling the engines and coming up there to have me a look.”
Billy ran forward, grabbing the other flashlight and a life vest on the way. The fog was unbelievably thick. At the end of the first barge he could see forward to the glow of lights on the front, and back to the glow of lights in the pilot house, but nothing in between. It was weird, and a little scary, as if his next step would plunge him over the front of the barge into the water.
He heard explosions and the loud crackle of fire. An orange glow appeared in the fog as he approached the lights on the front of the barge float.
“Dex, where you at?” Billy called as he approached.
“Over here on the right, Capt’n. There’s folks out in the water. I can’t tell if they’re dead or alive.”
The heat from the fire was intense at the front of the barge. It’s heat was dissipating the fog around the wreck, and the flames illuminated what was left of the bridge.
“Wow,” Billy exclaimed. “What a mess. See that flame on the water over there. I’ll bet the fuel tanks on those engines broke, spilling fuel. Those flames are really hot.”
“If you pull closer maybe we can rescue some of the folks.”
“Pull closer? We get any closer and we’ll be part of the fire. We gotta back up until the fuel burns off. Keep your radio on, Dex, and keep an eye out up here.”
Billy ran back toward the pilot house in the rear. Along the way he tripped on a coil of rope, and skinned his wrists when he fell flat on the deck. Picking himself up quickly, he grabbed the flashlight and hurried on a little more carefully.
Upon reaching the pilot house, Billy reversed the engines and picked up the intercom. He pushed the buzzer to signal a call to the boat master who was sleeping below. “Sorry to bother you Captain, but we got us a situation up here.”
The sleepy voice of the boat master answered, “What’s up Billy? I thought when you idled the engines you’d found a place to tie ’er her up.”
“A train derailed on the bridge that we bumped. Dex said there wern’t no damage from the bump, but a few minutes later a train came roaring across the bridge. Now there’s flames and people in the water.”
“Bridge? There shouldn’t be any bridges over the channel for miles,” the captain said, trying to wake up and make sense of what Billy was telling him. “I’ll be right up.”
Billy put a cigarette in his mouth, but didn’t take the time to light it.
“Dex, what’s the situation up there?” Billy called into the walkie-talkie, hoping the deck hand would answer.
“We’re far enough back, it looks like to me. The fire’s not spred’n, but it’s really bright and hot. The bridge is on fire in the middle. The flames are getting smaller though, but the fog’s not coming back yet.”
“Should we go back further?”
“Naw, we gotta help these folks. It looks like hundreds of folks in the water.”
“We can’t go close as long as the fires burn, but if they swim to us pull them up.”
The captain entered the pilot house with his shirt untucked and his hair skewed to the side. “Billy, what’s going on?”
“I’m glad you’re here, Captain. The fire was intense up there, so I pulled back ’till it burns down a bit. Dex says folks in the water need help.”
“You stay here, Billy. I’m going forward to take a look.” The captain grabbed the light and started forward. He stopped at the door and called back to Billy, “Turn on all the lights – forward and aft. Light this float up like a Christmas tree. Don’t want anyone not seeing us.”
After what seemed like an eternity, the captain called on Dex’s walkie-talkie, “Dex’s right, we barely even got a scratch in that bump, although we’ve got a couple of barges loose. The flames are not so bad, go ahead and pull forward on my signal. We’ve got to help the folks that can reach us. You did call the Coast Guard, didn’t you?”
Billy felt like swearing under his breath, “That was next on my list after getting our float out of the way.”
As he picked up the ship-to-shore radio and began calling the Coast Guard, an explosion rocked the area. Now he could see an orange flame in the night fog even from the pilot house.
He dropped the radio and grabbed the walkie-talkie. “Captain. Come in Captain. You guys OK up there? What’s happening?”
After a few moments Dex answered in the walkie-talkie, “Big explosion, Chief. Maybe we’re still a little close – knocked me and the boss off ar feet. He’s headed back your way with a bump on his head.”
The captain came storming into the pilot house. “Billy, where in tarnation have you taken us? There weren’t no bridges for miles over the river channel. After that explosion the flames were so hot and bright that I could see from one side to the other of whatever channel you’ve got us in. This creek’s only about three barge-lengths wide. The Mobile River channel where we’re supposed to be would be almost half a mile wide.”
“I’ve just kept steering along the left bank ever since we changed shifts at midnight. Didn’t make no turns nor take any shortcuts. We’ve been trying to find a place to tie off for the last hour, just idling along.”
The captain ran his hands through his hair and studied the chart that Billy laid out over the table earlier. Billy could see a large red bump beginning to form on one side of his forehead. “Where to Captain?” Billy asked.
“What? Oh, just idle here ’till Dex tells us the flames are dying down, while I study these charts for a minute. When did the Coast Guard say they’d get here?”
“Got distracted by the explosion, sir. I’m calling ’em now.”
Billy radioed the Coast Guard. When he had them on the line, he turned to the Captain, “I got the Coast Guard, Sir. You want to talk to them?”
“Naw, tell them to get here quick, we’re gonna try to rescue some folks.”
With tension in his voice, Billy frantically told them, “It’s real bad here. There’s a train that ran off the track into the water, and there’s lots of people that need help, and there’s a fire. Hurry and get out here, Coast Guard. We’re going to try to help some of them.”
“Give your position, Pilot,” the Coast Guard responded.
Billy answered, “The fog’s really bad here, but near as I can figure we’re a few miles north of Twelve Mile Island in the Mobile River Channel at a train bridge.”
“Belay that Billy,” said the captain. “We can’t be in the river channel, this is too narrow. Tell them I think we’re in Big Bayou Canot at the CSX bridge, although I’m not sure.
Billy relayed the information, then turned to the captain. “If folks are hurt bad we won’t have a way to treat them.”
“I know,” the captain told him. “But we’ve got to do what we can. This is really bad. Didn’t you see that the compass heading was wrong?”
“The fog got so thick that I wasn’t watching the compass. Dex and me were trying to stick to the bank so we could tie up. On the radar this bridge looked like a barge float, so we was gonna tie to it.”
“I hear you and I believe you. Let’s hope the Coast Guard does the same. Be glad that I don’t allow alcohol onboard. That’d be all we need – an investigation where alcohol was involved.”
The Coast Guard called back on the radio for further instructions and information. The captain said, “I’ll talk to them, Billy. Go forward and help Dex. Let me know how close we can get and stay out of danger.”
Billy arrived at the front of the barges and saw several people sitting and resting on the side.
Two men were helping Dex pull some others up the rope ladder that he had positioned over the bow of the center barge. Dex had his life jacket on and appeared to be dripping wet.
“What’s the status Dex?” Billy asked.
“These two guys were the first to swim out here to us. They’re in good shape so I put them to helping others. Those two women over there may have gotten burned. The third one we don’t know because she wouldn’t talk to us.”
“She’s probably in shock,” Billy told him. “Seems like the first aid for shock was to have a person lie down with their feet elevated, and keep them warm.”
“We ain’t got no blankets up here on the barges,” Dex stated, shivering from the cool air.
By the light of the fire Billy could see that the captain had been right. There was no way that this little tributary was the main river channel. Where did we make a wrong turn? Of course, in this fog it’s surprising we aren’t headed back downstream.
One of the women said, “Mister, thank you for getting here so quickly to rescue us.”
“We were already here,” Billy answered, feeling in his gut that their little bump was responsible somehow for this disaster. He didn’t want to talk about it, so he told Dex, “Keep getting all the folks out of the water that you can, I’m going back to the pilot for blankets.”
The burning center section of the bridge fell into the water with a hiss, extinguishing its flames. That left a passenger car from the train dangling further over the edge. It looked like one passenger car had gone completely under the water, and the other one had flames coming out each window along the side.
Billy shuddered at the disaster as he stumbled along in the dark fog toward the pilot house. In his distress he had forgotten to bring the flashlight.