Bridge Collapse in Washington Cripples Highway Near Seattle

By Ted Bunker and Peter Robison, Bloomberg | May 24, 2013

A section of a major interstate highway bridge in Washington state collapsed yesterday, sending two vehicles into the rushing waters of the Skagit River north of Seattle. Three people were rescued and no one is believed to have died, authorities said.

The bridge carried both north- and south-bound lanes of Interstate 5, which runs the length of the U.S. West Coast from Mexico to Canada. Investigators said a truck carrying an oversized load may have struck the span before it fell.

“A rough day,” Dan Sligh said in an interview with Seattle’s KOMO-TV after he escaped from his submerged car. “I’m glad to be here breathing.”

The bridge’s collapse put a new focus on the nation’s failing infrastructure, an issue that President Barack Obama has highlighted in his second-term agenda. It came almost six years after a highway span fell in Minnesota at rush hour, killing 13 people and injuring 145. Last week, Obama ordered a 50 percent cut in the time it takes executive-branch agencies to start major road and bridge projects.

The president cited “an aging infrastructure badly in need of repair” during his February State of the Union speech and called for $50 billion in new spending on repairs. He described a “Fix It First” program to deal with the most urgent needs.

“We have some work to do on our bridges,” Washington Governor Jay Inslee told reporters at the wrecked span, amid floodlights that lit up twisted, half-submerged pieces. “We have maintenance needs that are significant across our state.”

Traffic Disruption

The collapse will disrupt one of the state’s major freight routes between the U.S. and Canada, forcing traffic onto smaller roads and causing lengthy delays, according to state transportation officials.

“This is the artery of commerce and industry for the entire state of Washington,” Inslee said.

The incident at about 7 p.m. local time in Mount Vernon, about 62 miles (100 kilometers) north of Seattle, sent the vehicles and their occupants — a 46-year-old man, a 55-year-old woman and a 20-year-old man — into the water, according to state police.

Francisco Rodriguez, who lives nearby, was among a crowd who gathered to watch as rescuers in boats plucked them from atop their cars.

At Skagit Valley Hospital in Mount Vernon, two victims were in stable condition, according to Kari Ranten, a spokeswoman.

Investigative Team

“A third patient has been transported to a neighboring hospital, also in stable condition,” she said. “We believe that’s the extent of the patients that we’ll be receiving.”

Sligh and his wife were two of the survivors. Sligh, in interviews with local television stations outside Skagit Valley Hospital, said he was in his pickup going on a camping trip and was behind a semi truck when he commented to his wife that the truck’s load seemed three or four feet wider than the bridge. The truck hit the bridge, “there was a big puff of dust,” and Sligh’s vehicle went down with the collapsed bridge.

Sligh said his truck filled with water up to his stomach, and he was able to get out. He said he dislocated his shoulder and had cuts and bruises, and his wife, Sally, was admitted with internal bleeding. He said he was “beat up” but happy to be alive.

Busiest Freeway

U.S. National Transportation Safety Board Chairman Deborah Hersman will accompany an investigative team heading to the site, the agency said in a statement early today. The NTSB, based in Washington, D.C., investigates major transportation accidents in the U.S. and determines their causes.

Witnesses who contacted KING TV, a Seattle television station, described an overloaded semitractor-trailer rig striking part of the bridge before the collapse. One, identified as Dale Ogden, said he was driving on the bridge ahead of the truck and looked in his rearview mirror to see the collision, which tipped the truck’s wheels into the air before it righted. The station indicated the truck stopped up the road.

I-5 is the state’s busiest freeway, with 70 percent of the state’s population living within 16 miles of it, according to the Washington Transportation Department. The bridge crosses the Skagit, which flows to Puget Sound from the North Cascade mountains.

Below Average

The span was built in 1955, according to the National Bridge Inventory Database, a compilation of U.S. government data. Its condition was rated below-average compared with others in the state, the Times reported, citing an Associated Press analysis. The state transportation department said the bridge had a weight restriction of 20,000 pounds (9,000 kilograms).

Bart Treece, spokesman for the department, said the span was last inspected in November. The state inspects bridges every two years.

“Our state engineer is saying they are looking into the possibility of an oversized load striking the bridge before it collapsed,” Treece said. The bridge had carried 77,000 vehicles a day.

In August 2007, an interstate highway bridge collapsed in Minneapolis, sending rush-hour traffic into the Mississippi River and killing 13 people and injuring 145 — the worst such event in 25 years. The NTSB inquiry into the incident found that steel plates used to connect the 40-year-old structure’s beams were too thin, causing it to fail.

Minneapolis Bridge

The Interstate 35W bridge in Minneapolis fell after modifications added to the weight of the span, and construction work at the time as well as traffic placed more than 577,000 pounds (262,000 kilograms) of extra load on the deck near where it failed, the NTSB said in a 2008 report.

The safety board recommended inspections of about 465 other bridges in the U.S. that used a similar design.

A gusset plate that failed was bowed in a 2003 photo from a study commissioned by the Minnesota Transportation Department, said Jim Wildey, a structural analyst for the safety board’s research and engineering division. Bridge-inspection records didn’t cite the bowing, Wildey said.

In Washington, the I-5 bridge’s structural evaluation was “somewhat better than minimum adequacy to tolerate being left in place,” according to the National Bridge Inventory Database.

There are about 18,000 so-called fracture-critical bridges nationwide, of which about 8,000 are classified as “structurally deficient,” according to Federal Highway Administration records reviewed by Bloomberg News last year.

Bridges rated structurally deficient require “significant maintenance and repair to remain in service and eventual rehabilitation or replacement to address the deficiencies,” according to the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials.

With assistance from Britton Staniar in Seattle, Alan Levin in Washington, Michael B. Marois in Sacramento and James Nash in Los Angeles. Editors: Michael Shepard, Ted Bunker

©2013 Bloomberg News

Latest Comments

  • May 24, 2013 at 6:06 pm
    Celtica says:
    Bridges that fall apart at the seams and schools in tornado zones without safe rooms. Time to get serious about fixing the American infrastructure and stop this silliness in W... read more
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