SEATTLE (AP) — The chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board said Saturday the bridge collapse in Washington state is a wake-up call for the nation.
"This is a really significant event and we need to learn from it, not just in Washington but around the country," Debbie Hersman said after taking a boat ride on the Skagit River below the dramatic scene where a truck bumped against the steel framework, collapsing the bridge and sending two vehicles and three people falling into the chilly water.
Investigators need to find out what happened in Washington and if it could be repeated at similar bridges around the country, Hersman said.
"At the end of the day it's about preventing an accident like this," she said.
Her team will spend a week to 10 days looking at the bridge, talking to the truck driver whose vehicle hit it, and examining maintenance documents and previous accident reports.
Other over-height vehicles struck the Skagit River bridge before the collapse on Thursday, she noted. Investigators are using a high tech 3-D video camera to review the scene and attempt to pinpoint where the bridge failure began.
Hersman does not expect the investigation to delay removal of debris from the river or work on a temporary solution to replace or repair the I-5 span. State and federal officials can, and will, work together on the investigation, she said.
They'll be watching for safety issues that could affect other bridges.
"The results can be very catastrophic," Hersman said. "We're very fortunate in this situation."
Washington state officials said Saturday that it will take time to find both short- and long-term fixes for the bridge that collapsed on Interstate 5.
While, the National Transportation and Safety Board finishes its inspection, state workers will begin removing debris from the river. Next, a temporary solution will be put in place to return traffic to Washington state's most important north-south roadway.
Inspectors are working to find out whether the disintegration on Thursday of the heavily used span over the Skagit River, 60 miles north of Seattle and 40 miles south of the Canadian border, was a fluke or a sign of bigger problems.
"These things take time. We want to make sure it's done right, done thoroughly," Washington Transportation Department spokesman Bart Treece said.
A trucker was hauling a load of drilling equipment Thursday evening when his load bumped against the steel framework over the bridge. He looked in his rearview mirror and saw the span collapse into the water behind him.
Motorists should not expect to drive on I-5 between Mount Vernon and Burlington for many weeks and possibly months, Treece said.
Treece asked people to plan for an extra hour to make their way through detours around the collapsed bridge. There are three detour options northbound and two options southbound.
About 71,000 vehicles use that stretch of highway every day. Late Saturday morning, traffic was moving freely through the detours.
"We're expecting it to get worse as the day progresses," Treece said, noting that at 11 a.m., the cloudy skies and cool weather could be keeping Memorial Day weekend travelers at home.
State transportation officials began working on both a temporary solution and a permanent fix within hours of the bridge collapse, he said.
The goal is to get I-5 open as quickly as possible, while making sure the solution is as safe as possible, he added.
Officials were looking for a temporary, pre-fabricated bridge to replace the 160-foot section that failed, Gov. Jay Inslee said Friday. That option could be in place in weeks. Otherwise, it could be months before a replacement can be built, the governor said.
Inslee said it will cost $15 million to repair the bridge. The federal government has promised $1 million in emergency dollars and more money could come later, according to Washington's congressional delegation.
MOUNT VERNON, Wash. – The trucker was hauling a load of drilling equipment when his load bumped against the steel framework over an Interstate 5 bridge. He looked in his rearview mirror and watched in horror as the span collapsed into the water behind him. Two vehicles fell into the icy Skagit River.
Amazingly, nobody was killed. The three people who fell into the water escaped with only minor injuries.
Officials are trying to find out whether the spectacular collapse of a bridge on one of the West's most important roadways was a fluke – or a sign of a bigger problem with thousands of bridges across the U.S.
The condition of the nation's aging bridge infrastructure has been a concern since 2007, when a bridge fell into the Mississippi River in Minnesota, killing 13 people. About a quarter of the nation's bridges are structurally deficient or functionally obsolete, according to federal records, and an average of 25 bridges in the U.S. collapse each year.
Officials were looking for a temporary, pre-fabricated bridge to replace the 160-foot section that failed, Gov. Jay Inslee said Friday.
The spectacular collapse unfolded about 7 p.m. Thursday on the north end of the four-lane bridge near Mount Vernon, about 60 miles north of Seattle and 40 miles south of the Canada border.
"He looked in the mirrors and it just dropped out of sight," Cynthia Scott, the wife of truck driver William Scott, said from the couple's home near Spruce Grove, Alberta. "I spoke to him seconds after it happened. He was just horrified."
The truck driver works for Mullen Trucking in Alberta, the Washington State Patrol said. The tractor-trailer was hauling a housing for drilling equipment southbound when the top right front corner of the load struck several of the bridge's trusses, the patrol said.
Scott, 41, remained at the scene and cooperated with investigators. He voluntarily gave a blood sample for an alcohol test and was not arrested.
Scott has been driving trucks for 20 years and hauling specialized loads for more than 10.
The truck made it off the bridge, but two other vehicles went into the water about 25 feet below as the structure crumbled.
State officials approved the trucking company to carry a load as high as 15 feet, 9 inches, according to the permit released by the state. However, the southbound vertical clearance on the Skagit River bridge is as little as 14 feet, 5 inches, state records show. The bridge's curved overhead girders are higher in the center of the bridge but sweep lower toward a driver's right side.
The bridge has a maximum clearance of about 17 feet, but there is no signage to indicate how to safely navigate the bridge with a tall load.
The permit specifically describes the route the truck would take, though it includes a qualification that the state "Does Not Guarantee Height Clearance."
It's not rare for trucks to strike bridges in Washington state – it's just that such accidents don't usually cause the structures to collapse. The state Department of Transportation said there were 21 bridge-strikes involving trucks last year, 24 in 2011 and 14 in 2010.
Officials performed a special inspection six months ago of the bridge that collapsed because there were indications it had been struck by a different vehicle.
A report released Friday says the checkup was done due to "impact damage," and inspectors identified tears, deformations and gouges on the northbound side of the bridge. There are no signs leading up to the Skagit River bridge to warn about its clearance height. State Transportation Secretary Lynn Peterson said that under federal and state standards, the clearance is tall enough to not require signage.
Inslee said it will cost $15 million to repair the bridge. The federal government has already promised the state $1 million in emergency funding.
Traffic could be affected for some time. The bridge is used by an average of 71,000 vehicles a day, so the roadblock will cause a major disruption in trade and tourism.
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