Bridge Collapse in Washington State Sends Cars Into River

An interstate highway bridge in Washington state collapsed yesterday, sending vehicles into the rushing waters of the Skagit River north of Seattle. Three people were rescued and none 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 pickup. “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.

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

Traffic Disruption

The incident in Mount Vernon, about 62 miles (100 kilometers) north of Seattle, disrupted a freight route between the U.S. and Canada, forcing traffic onto smaller roads and causing lengthy delays, according to state transportation officials.

Sligh and his wife were headed for a camping trip in their pickup at about 7 p.m. as they passed over the bridge, he said in interviews with local television stations outside Skagit Valley Hospital. They were behind a semi truck when he commented to his wife that its 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.

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

Trucker Cooperates

The driver of the semi is a 42-year-old man from Spruce Grove in the Canadian province of Alberta, according to a Washington State Patrol release. The driver stopped his rig on the south side of the bridge after the accident and has been cooperating with investigators, said Sergeant Kirk Rudeen, a patrol spokesman.

Mullen Trucking LP, based in Aldersyde, Alberta, had a state permit to carry a piece of drilling equipment, said vice president Ed Scherbinski.

“It’s not a super-big piece at all,” he said.

The truck was also escorted by a pole car, which travels a few hundred yards ahead and carries an electronic pole to signal dangers from power lines or other obstructions, he said. The company sent its own investigators to the site and isn’t sure yet what happened, Scherbinski said.

Hospitals reported all three survivors in stable condition. In addition to Sligh and his wife, a 20-year-old man and his vehicle went into the water, authorities said.

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

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.

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.

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 Seattle 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 inspected in November. The state inspects bridges every two years.

‘Minimum Adequacy’

In August 2007, an interstate bridge collapsed in Minneapolis, sending rush-hour traffic into the Mississippi River -- the worst such event in 25 years. An NTSB inquiry found that steel plates used to connect the 40-year-old structure’s beams were too thin.

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.

Peter Robison in Seattle at

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