The James River, closed to traffic after a tower of the Benjamin Harrison Memorial Bridge collapsed Sunday night, may be open again Wednesday, a highway official said yesterday.

The bridge was damaged Feb. 24 when it was hit by the sulfur tanker Marine Floridan. A section of the bridge was knocked out and the ship lodged into the structure so that moving it threatened the entire span. Sunday night the north tower toppled into the river, accompanied by an explosion and short-lived fire. No one was injured.

One channel of the river opened to traffic last Saturday. State Highway Department Director of Operations J. M. Way said yesterday that when the tower fell, the "lift span" fell into the river's main channel causing the entire river to be closed off.

Officials hope the span can be salvaged from the river, which wuld cut down on both the expense and duration of the bridge repair. At this point repairs are expected to take from 1 1/2 to two years, depending on how salvageable the span is, and cost as much as $2 million.

Ray said the Marine Floridian may be freed in three or four days. He said that on Friday morning a crane capable of lifting 800 tons will begin work on retrieving the 750-ton span. Three other cranes are at work pulling debris out of the river so that at least one channel may be opened Wednesday.

The 4,463-foot bridge is a major route for commuter traffic going into Hopewell. A ferry service provided by the state office of emergency services started carrying commuters across the river yesterday. Buses take workers from selected points in Charles City County to the ferry and other buses deliver them to various plants in the Hopewell area.

The state has filed a $2 million damage suit against the ship's owners, charging it was "improperly manned and equipped."