LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) — Authorities resumed a search Wednesday for two men reported missing in the Mississippi River after a barge carrying tons of steel coil flipped and sank while moored at a terminal in northeast Arkansas.
"At this point, it's still a search-and-rescue mission," Brandon Morris, a spokesman for the Arkansas Department of Emergency Management, said Wednesday morning. "It has not turned into a recovery mission."
U.S. Coast Guard spokesman Bill Colclough said the two fell into the water Tuesday afternoon while the barge was being unloaded at a terminal east of Blytheville, about 60 miles north of Memphis, Tenn. The vessel, moored at the Kinder Morgan dock near Hickman, was carrying about 700,000 pounds of steel coil.
Houston-based Kinder Morgan said it did not own the barge. Spokesman Richard Wheatley declined to release the names of the two missing people and who owned the barge. It was not immediately clear who employed the missing men.
Colclough, speaking from New Orleans, said the barge lifted to its starboard side and sank — but why it did so wasn't known.
The barge was fully submerged along the river's tree-lined banks. The river was running swiftly and just below flood stage Wednesday just south of where Arkansas, Missouri and Tennessee meet.
The Coast Guard closed about 10 miles of the river so that it, the Mississippi County Sheriff's Office and Arkansas Game and Fish Commission can search for the missing men, said Lt. Brandon McMillan, a spokesman for the Coast Guard in Memphis.
"There's too many factors to predict where they could end up," McMillan said. "The Mississippi River is an unpredictable river. At this point, we don't know where they could be."
Colclough said search efforts will continue throughout the day and possibly into Thursday. McMillan wouldn't say when searchers would transition from a rescue operation to one aimed at recovering bodies. Across the state, near Texarkana, the search for a woman who fell into the Red River on Feb. 8 was suspended after three weeks.
"Right now, our focus is the search and rescue," McMillan said. "We are conducting an investigation on top of that. Our primary focus is the search and rescue part. ... I don't have a time when the investigation will be complete or how long it will take."
Both Colclough and McMillan said they did not know who owned the barge.
Keith Stephens of the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission said a third person was reported on the barge, but escaped to safety before it sank. Both Colclough and McMillan said they have not heard reports about a third person.
The Coast Guard is considering how to reopen the river; eight tows were lined up on either side of the search area Wednesday. Because the river flows southward, McMillan said southbound vessels may be allowed to go first because their travel would produce less of a wake.
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