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Friday, June 23, 2006 - Page updated at 04:13 PM

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The information in this article, originally published on seattletimes.com June 23, 2006, was corrected June 23, 2006. Andrew Lam, one of the victims of a West Seattle Bridge crash, was incorrectly identified in a previous version of this story as Adam Lam.

Deadly car crash "pretty extreme"

Seattle Times staff reporters

Police investigating a deadly car crash on the West Seattle Bridge Thursday discovered the hood of the car on nearby East Marginal Way. A door landed on Highway 99. Hunks of steel and concrete were strewn across the road.

Hours later, police still could not even estimate the three victims' ages, say whether they were men or women, or identify the make of their car.

"It was pretty extreme," Seattle Police Chief Gil Kerlikowske said.

The King County Medical Examiner's Office identified the three victims.

Puttanapoong Srisuthisuriya, 17, died from burns to 95 percent of his body, inhalation of toxic smoke and blunt force injuries to his head. Andrew Lam, also 17, died from inhalation of toxic smoke and burns. Dararith Sok,18, died of numerous internal injuries and body trauma.

The investigation into the accident triggered a monstrous traffic jam that brought the morning commute to a standstill, and left some drivers upset and angry, wondering why it took so long.

The complaints echo concerns expressed earlier this month, when the King County Sheriff's Office was criticized for shutting down the northbound lanes of Interstate 5 for about five hours after the fatal shooting of a man by a deputy.

In Thursday's crash, it was a combination of factors, including a malfunctioning electronic sign and the severity of the accident, that kept the West Seattle Bridge closed for hours, Kerlikowske and city transportation officials acknowledged. It took about eight hours before all lanes were reopened.

"There's no question it was a mess for commuters," Kerlikowske said. But, he said, "we had a one-car accident with three deaths and those families want to know, gosh, why did this happen and how did this happen? We wanted to do as thorough an investigation as possible."

The car was in flames when firefighters arrived. They had to beat down the fire before they cut off the roof of the car and extracted the victims.

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"The officers at the scene couldn't tell for a while how many bodies they had," Kerlikowske said.

The car, heading eastbound, had smashed into a crash cushion near the exit to Highway 99 about 2:47 a.m. It sent up a shower of steel and concrete. A forklift had to be brought in to reposition the barriers that were knocked out of place.

Concerns about damage to the road and bridge, the size of the debris field, and the barriers that blocked part of the road made it especially challenging to reopen the bridge to traffic, Kerlikowske said.

After Thursday's crash, the accident investigation — in which detectives take photographs and measurements at the crash scene and collect evidence — was done about as fast as possible, police say.

Motorists impatient

The Police Department has taken steps in the past year to improve its accident-investigation techniques, Kerlikowske said.

And last year, California Highway Patrol officials, experienced in investigative techniques and technology, were invited to provide training to the Washington State Patrol and Seattle police in processing accident scenes and quickly reopening thoroughfares.

"People act all impatient. If your family member was one of those three people, do you seriously think you would want the Seattle Police Department to rush their investigation?" said Patrice Gillespie Smith, Chief of Staff for Seattle's Department of Transportation.

As the Thursday morning rush hour approached, extra traffic officers were called to work early to help direct detoured motorists. And transportation workers scrambled to erect detour signs around West Seattle, said Seattle Department of Transportation spokesman Gregg Hirakawa. Transportation workers did their best, he said, considering there are so few routes to and from the West Seattle peninsula.

The crash closed westbound lanes until 7:30 a.m.; eastbound lanes did not reopen until 11 a.m.

It didn't help matters when an electronic sign positioned on Delridge Way to warn motorists from the south end of the neighborhood malfunctioned, possibly leading to additional confusion and frustration, Hirakawa said.

Also aggravating drivers was the decision at about 9 a.m. to open West Seattle's low-level bridge to let a commercial shipment pass through, Hirakawa acknowledged.

In an effort to help keep traffic flowing on East Marginal Way, Hirakawa said, some traffic signals were programmed to stay green longer than usual.

Transportation-department engineers also needed to inspect the bridge, which added to the delay, Hirakawa said. Damage was more than cosmetic, "but the bridge is safe and sound," he said, adding that road crews will be repairing the damaged barriers.

"It was a very violent incident and that's always tragic," he said. "We don't like to see anybody dying on our roadways."

No detour plan for bridge

After the Nisqually earthquake hit five years ago, Seattle's Department of Transportation crafted a detour plan for the Alaskan Way Viaduct, but no such plan has been written for the West Seattle Bridge, which accommodates some 107,500 trips a day.

On June 6, state Transportation Secretary Doug MacDonald said at a CityClub luncheon that a recent five-hour closure of northbound I-5 was "unacceptable." He was referring to an investigation after a deputy's fatal shooting of a man during a fight near the Albro-Swift exit in South Seattle.

Later, MacDonald said he wasn't passing judgment on the sheriff's department, but that he wanted to ask questions about whether the road could have been reopened sooner.

Sheriff's spokesman John Urquhart said the department worked hard to try to minimize traffic jams after the 2:30 a.m. shooting.

Urquhart said it's rare for the sheriff's office to close a freeway.

"The investigation has to be proper, and it has to be done using good techniques. That can't be done if you've got traffic going by at 40, 50, 60 mph," Urquhart said.

Sara Jean Green: 206-515-5654 or sgreen@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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