GREEN BAY - Curt Cornell has worked at Green Bay's Hagemeister Park for six summers, but he'd never seen anything like what happened Sunday afternoon.
A coal ship more than 700 feet long flattened a small boat that was tied up on the edge of the Fox River outside his restaurant, then struck the Ray Nitschke Memorial Bridge, putting the span out of commission for more than three hours.
"The boat was coming in, we had a full patio, and everyone was taking pictures — the usual drill," said Cornell, Hagemeister's general manager. "We were in the piano bar and noticed the boat was really close. Then people just started screaming and yelling."
As Hagemeister's patio full of stunned patrons watched, the ship Kaye E. Barker struck the CityDeck, left a boat of 16 to 18 feet in pieces, and sent kayaks tumbling from the dock into the water. The Barker then smacked the Nitschke bridge.
The incident, which happened about 3:30 p.m., left the bridge stuck in the open position and forced city police to detour east-west traffic to the nearby Walnut Street Bridge. Crews were raising and lowering the Nitschke bridge as of 6 p.m., but did not allow traffic to cross until later.
"It was crazy," said Elizabeth Feldhausen, who watched the incident while at Hagemeister to celebrate her cousin's 24th birthday. "Everybody started running; this family ran out yelling, 'That's our boat!'
"It literally was gone in 30 seconds."
Like many others at Hagemeister, Feldhausen recorded camera-phone video of the incident.
No injuries were reported. Cars and trucks, meanwhile, backed up on both sides of the bridge. The other bridges in Green Bay — the Walnut Street, Don A. Tilleman and Leo Frigo Memorial — remained open.
The city of Green Bay on Thursday had closed the CityDeck and Leicht docks because of high water levels made access difficult.
An official of the company that owns the ship said the captain encountered "unexpected and strong currents" that pushed the vessel toward the river's eastern bank. There, he said, the ship scraped a protective barrier around one of the bridge piers.
Currents "pushed him to port as he was backing toward the bridge," said Tom Wynne, vice president and general counsel for The Interlake Steamship Co. of Ohio. "My understanding is that he came up against the fendering, but not the bridge itself."
Witnesses said a U.S. Coast Guard crew was on scene almost immediately after the incident. Feldhausen said someone from the Coast Guard plucked a gasoline can from the damaged boat just as it overturned.
Green Bay Metro firefighters were at the scene just before sunset Sunday dealing with gas and oil that had leaked from the destroyed boat, which had two outboard motors, Battalion Chief Steve Sellin said.
Before the incident, the Barker had unloaded its cargo of coal to the C. Reiss Coal Co on the river's western shore just south of the Tilleman Bridge at Mason Street, and was scheduled to head to Michigan.
The Barker was docked Sunday evening at the Fox River Terminal, on the river's west shore just north of the Frigo bridge. That was done so so the Coast Guard could continue its investigation, Wynne said.
The Barker, built in 1952 as the Edward B. Green, is 767 feet long and can carry 25,900 gross tons of cargo, according to the company's website.
After striking the one boat, the ship missed a larger boat tied to the CityDeck, Feldhausen said. She said a child had been playing near the water's edge minutes before the incident.
The Barker was renamed the Benson Ford in 1985, and the Kaye E. Barker — honoring the wife of Interlake's chairman — in 1989. It has undergone work at Bay Shipbuilding in Sturgeon Bay in 2012, according to the website.
The ship had just left C. Reiss Coal Co. south of Walnut Street and was backing north through the river when it got too close to the channel's east shore.
The owner of the destroyed boat had been enjoying lunch at Hagemeister when the incident occurred, Cornell said.
He said a woman told him, "We have a tab open, but we're going to take care of this first" before running to the river's edge to speak with the Coast Guard.