Engineers complete longest floating project in Iraq

28 Jun 2003 | Army Staff Sgt. David Bennett

Working jointly, Navy, Marine, and Army engineers have completed a bridge that is one for the history books.

As local and military dignitaries looked on June 28, the opening of a new floating steel bridge marked the biggest project of its kind in Iraq to date.

Coalition forces destroyed the bridge during the war to slow the Iraqi Army. Navy Lt. j.g. Marcus V. Rossi, bridging officer for First Marine Expeditionary Force Engineer Group, said the 762-foot-long bridge is the longest floating span ever to be built in Iraq by military engineers.

It took 11 days to complete.

More than 200 people from several units participated in what one Seabee called an historic accomplishment.

Navy Lt. James Croom, operations officer for the MEG, said such a floating bridge this size hasn't been attempted by Navy engineers since World War II.

"The last time the Seabees built this type of bridge is when they got Patton over the Rhine River," Croom said, referring to Gen. George Patton's need in 1944 to get the Third Army across the river for his charge into Germany.

To ensure that everything for the lengthy project remained on course, representatives from Mabey & Johnson Ltd., a company in England that is renowned in steel bridging, traveled to Iraq to instruct the Seabees involved in the project.

"They were out training all our battalions on how to construct this bridge," Rossi said.

Many agreed that the training was welcome in light of project's scope.

"This is the biggest one I've worked on," said Petty Officer 1st Class Hippolito Quiles, a resident of San Diego, Calif. assigned as a builder with Naval Mobile Construction Battalion 7 of Gulfport, Miss.

Rossi said six sections were linked together; two 40-meter sections were anchored to either end and four 33-meter sections were put upon floating pontoons to complete the bridge.

Pontoons, which 100-foot long were tethered to the river floor by thick polyester strands.

Navy Lt. j.g. David M. Minnick, Jr., a boatswaine for Amphibious Construction Battalion 1, said 20 ketch anchors, each weighing 500 pounds were used to secure the bridge sections into place.

The anchors are made to dig deeper into the river bottom the faster the current, thus making the 490-ton bridge more stable, according to Minnick, a native of Niagara Falls, N.Y.

Besides NMCB 7, other units that participated in the project included Gulfport, Miss.-based Naval Mobile Construction Battalion 133, Naval Construction Support Team 2 of Port Hueneme, Calif., Amphibious Construction Battalion 1 of Coronado Calif. and Amphibious Construction Battalion 2, based in Little Creek, Va.

Boat crews from the 1437th Multiple Role Bridge Co., an Army National Guard unit from Saute Ste. Marie, Mich. were tasked with keeping the pontoons in place in the swift current of the Tigris River.

Plans for building the floating bridge in Zubaydiyah had been in the works prior to war in anticipation of the destruction of the original bridge that had been on the site, Rossi said. Before the war began in March, engineers had figured out the bridge would have to be demolished to hamper Iraqi forces, and then rebuilt so coalition forces could advance to Baghdad.

Though the bridge wasn't critical to coalition forces' objective in taking the capital city during the war, the span had to be completed to restore a major transportation route.

Though crews were able to work without being fired upon, the reconstruction job still proved formidable.

Workers in and above the water struggled with strong winds that made the Tigris River swift as work progress. It was also the biggest challenge, as crews worked to anchor the pontoons into position.

"This thing snaked," Quiles said. "The Army guys had to keep adjusting their boats so we could drop the anchors."

Steadying the pontoons to get the separate bridge deckings in place was the critical part of the job as it turned out.

"If the anchoring didn't go well, the bridge wouldn't be here," Minnick said.

The result, which took less than two weeks to produce, is a sturdy span that will be here long after the workers who built it have gone home, Rossi said.

"These guys did it in great time," he said.