Col. Keith Landry, commander of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Louisville District, and Congressman Geoff Davis, R-Ky., had a press conference at the Markland Locks and Dam on Tuesday after Landry briefed local and national officials about the failure of a lock gate. (Staff photo by Ken Ritchie)
Col. Keith Landry, commander of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Louisville District, and Congressman Geoff Davis, R-Ky., had a press conference at the Markland Locks and Dam on Tuesday after Landry briefed local and national officials about the failure of a lock gate. (Staff photo by Ken Ritchie)
The gates on the locks at Markland Locks and Dam are well past their lifespan, but there was no hint of imminent failure during a 10-day inspection that ended Saturday, a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers commander said Tuesday.

A leaf gate, which is one side of a miter gate, broke off its hinge and sank Sunday morning, causing the main lock to be closed indefinitely. The Ohio River was closed at Markland for about 11 hours while an auxiliary lock was placed in operation.

"We were confident they were operational," Col. Keith Landry, commander of the Louisville District of the Corps of Engineers, said at a press conference on the concrete deck between the two locks at Markland. "There were no issues."

New gate leaves were already on order before the gate broke loose, Landry said. They are scheduled to be delivered in June 2010 for installation in 2011 as part of a planned but overdue refurbishing at the 50-year-old locks, the corps said.

"The Corps of Engineers has identified a need to replace these," Landry said. Until the cause of the breakage is determined, Landry said, "It's not prudent to say, 'Wow, we were off by two years.'"

The Corps of Engineers is negotiating with Oregon Iron Works in Eugene, Ore., to try to have the gates made and delivered sooner, Landry said.

Corps of Engineers officials were surprised that the 280-ton gate fell off, but probably not nearly as surprised as the crew of a charter yacht from near Louisville that was inside the lock when the gate broke off.

"It did get jostled around a bit, I'm sure," Landry said.

The charter boat was waiting for the downriver gate leaves to close behind it, to be followed by water rushing into the lock at 1 million gallons a minute until, about 30 minutes later, the boat would be raised to the upriver level and the gate leaves on that end would open for the boat to continue toward Cincinnati.

The upriver gate leaves could not have been opened to let the charter boat proceed because the weight of the water holds them closed until the water level in the lock is the same as the level of the river on the other side, Landry said. If the upriver gate leaves could have been opened, the Ohio River would have been unleashed in a torrent of unstoppable water headed downriver after engulfing the charter boat.

The charter yacht was able to be maneuvered out of the lock by going through the gaping hole where the gate leaf had been, not knowing how far below the surface it was. The lock is 110 feet wide and the yacht is 96 feet long. The boat exited the lock without incident, Landry said.

The charter boat was on its way to Turtle Creek Marina in Florence, near Vevay, to pick up passengers who had been on an excursion to Belterra Casino and Resort, and take them home to Louisville, Mike Wheeler, the owner of the marina, said Tuesday evening.

Witnesses reported hearing an explosion at the dam and locks, and that led to speculation about terrorism, Landry said after the press conference. But he said what they probably heard was the gate, which left a twisted hinge top where it broke off before hitting the water.

"There was no terrorism," Landry said.

A board of investigation within the Corps of Engineers whose members will include people from other Corps of Engineers districts will determine why the gate broke off, he said.

The gate section was located Monday with the use of underwater sonar, and it was photographed so Landry can decide whether there is space for a maintenance bulkhead to be built to hold back water. He will be deciding whether repairs can be made, or whether the lock will have to stay closed until the new gates arrive. In any case, the hinge has to be repaired, he said.

Landry is putting together a plan for what to do, and that could include the Corps of Engineers seeking more money from Congress. Funds for the new miter gates were approved this year.

The broken gate leaf was on the main lock, which is 1,200 feet long. The auxiliary lock is 600 feet long.

The trip through the smaller lock takes longer for fully loaded tows because they have to be separated and taken through in two trips, said Todd Hornback, a Corps of Engineers public affairs officer.

Instead of a barge going through the lock in 30 to 45 minutes, now it takes about 90 minutes, and that has an economic impact on the businesses that ship by barge, Hornback said.

It costs about $500 an hour to operate a tugboat, he said, so the longer times to go through the lock and delays if traffic is backed up costs businesses money, he said.

The magnitude of dealing with a heavy metal gate was placed in perspective by U.S. Rep. Geoff Davis, R-Ky., who was among local, state and federal officials or their representatives from Kentucky and Indiana who stayed for the press conference after Landry briefed them about the gate failure.

At 280 tons, the submerged gate leaf is like having four M-1 Abrams tanks "fall over," Davis said.

"It's very serious and very complex," Davis said.

About 55 million tons of goods go through the Markland lock each year, carried by about 2,400 tows, the corps said. One barge in a tow can carry as much as 58 large semis, the corps said.