Barge with 2,400 tonnes of acid capsizes in Germany

Thursday, January 13, 2011

ST GOARSHAUSEN - A motorised barge carrying 2,400 tonnes of sulphuric acid capsized and sank Thursday in Germany’s scenic Rhine river gorge, leaving two of the four crew members missing in the flood-swollen river.

Authorities said tests showed none of the acid had escaped into the river.

The gorge is one of Europe’s main tourist attractions, with guides telling cruise boat passengers the legend of the Lorelei, a towering rock causing a fierce eddy that has wrecked countless boats during the 3,000 or more years of river navigation.

German poets in the 19th century spun the legend that the rock was haunted by a female ghost who lured men to drown with her siren song.

“It looks like the Lorelei has struck again,” said a resident on the riverbank, as he stared at the 110-metre-long hull of the tanker Waldhoff lying on its port beam, half out of the water, at the narrowest part of the gorge near the town of St Goarshausen.

Hundreds of police officers in boats and a helicopter scoured the banks of the river, which was flooded from snow melting in recent days, but could not find the two missing crew members. The two survivors said both missing men had probably been below deck.

Police said that whether the men were trapped in the hull or washed away, there was practically no chance of them being alive. One of the four crew members was a Czech and the others German. The survivors were uninjured, police said.

River officials said they were mystified about what caused the wreck.

“One moment it was on our radar, then it just vanished,” said Martin Mauermann, head of the federal waterways office in nearby Bingen.

No other vessels had been nearby.

The barge had just passed the Lorelei rock with a load of the acid from a BASF chemicals plant at Ludwigshafen, Germany. It was bound for the Belgian seaport of Antwerp.

The Rhine broke its banks this week, invading low-lying parts of the cities of Cologne, Mainz and Koblenz.

A tributary of the river, the Main, was lapping at the main square of the German financial capital, Frankfurt, Thursday morning.

A Frankfurt fire brigade spokesman said a metal flood barrier on the square, which is flanked by Frankfurt’s Roemer historic town hall, was holding back the water.

Heavy rain was feared later Friday and was likely to push the water level higher, meteorologists said.

Scientists said there was so much water in the Rhine that a sulphuric acid leak from the wreck would have no major effect. But a sudden rupture of the Waldhoff’s hull would cause a chemical reaction releasing massive heat.

“This part of the river might get so hot, it would boil,” said Martin Keller, a chemist at Germany’s federal waterway science agency BfG.

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