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Originally published May 27, 2013 at 9:01 PM | Page modified May 28, 2013 at 10:20 PM

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Probe of I-5 bridge collapse shifts underwater

Work crews have begun removing debris from the collapse of the Interstate 5 bridge into the Skagit River, as workers on Monday retrieved two vehicles and a travel trailer from the river.

Seattle Times staff reporters

Anatomy of the failed bridge

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Work crews have begun removing debris from the collapse of the Interstate 5 bridge into the Skagit River, as workers Monday retrieved two vehicles, a travel trailer and some bridge beams.

The first priority for the crews will be to retrieve the items the National Transportation Safety Board — the agency investigating the collapse — wants to examine. Those include the two vehicles as well as certain pieces of the steel-truss bridge’s beams.

Of particular interest is beam “U4,” the second crossbeam in the southbound direction, which wound up underwater, NTSB Chairwoman Deborah Hersman has said.

The extraction must be slowly executed, to avoid damaging evidence. By 8:30 p.m. Monday, some of the downed beams were loaded onto a barge for NTSB’s examination, and an empty barge was moving into position, said Kris Olsen, a state Department of Transportation spokeswoman.

After the NTSB is satisfied, then the rest of the debris can be removed, making way for the building of a temporary span to replace the portion of the bridge that collapsed.

The temporary section could be in place, and the bridge open, by mid-June, state officials have said.

This week, the state will repair a second bridge span that also was damaged by the overheight truck load Thursday, said Harvey Coffman, state bridge-preservation engineer. One overhead beam will be replaced with a salvaged part from the wreckage, he said, while a new piece will replace a large vertical beam that’s badly bent.

Approximately 10 overhead crossbeams were hit by drilling equipment estimated at 15 feet, 9 inches tall, hauled by a truck destined for Vancouver, Wash. Hersman mentioned Saturday that a corner of the truck’s load appeared crumpled afterward, so it may have been knocked slightly lower after the first couple of hits.

Late Sunday, barges transporting cranes and excavators — which have mounted hydraulic shears to cut damaged beams, steel and concrete — began arriving at the collapsed span.

On Monday, crews removed from the river the pickup that an Oak Harbor couple had been driving, and the camper trailer it had been pulling. They also retrieved an orange compact SUV a Mount Vernon man had been driving.

All three drivers survived with minor injuries.

The NTSB wants to examine the pickup and SUV to help them reconstruct the sequence of events Thursday evening.

Part of the agency’s investigation also involves talking with the driver of the pilot car that preceded the truck.

Washington state requires trucks that exceed height restrictions use a lead pilot vehicle that has a height pole attached to it.

In this case, the driver of the pilot car was supposed to alert the truck driver by radio if there were any height issues along the way.

The State Patrol detained the pilot-car driver after the accident Thursday, interviewed her and took measurements of her Dodge Ram pickup, NTSB officials have said.

The NTSB has that information as well as the driver’s identity and has reached out to her, but as of Monday afternoon had not been able to schedule an interview or to examine the vehicle and measuring pole.

Some witnesses apparently had said they saw the pilot car’s pole wagging as it was crossing the bridge.

Hersman said some of the witness statements “will be conflicting” and that her team was still putting together the complete picture.

Monday afternoon, work crews were preparing to cut the pieces of the bridge beams the NTSB has specified it wants to see.

“The agency hasn’t given us the green light to start demolition,” said Dave Chesson, a state transportation department spokesman. “Until they say it’s done, we can’t go in there and go full-bore.”

In the meantime, the Transportation Department is taking advantage of the opportunity to do a thorough examination of the bridge. That includes looking for any collapse-related damage but also any other repairs that might be needed, such as fixing potholes.

“This is our opportunity to go over the bridge with a fine- tooth comb while there’s no traffic on it,” Chesson said.

Janet I. Tu: 206-464-2272 or jtu@seattletimes.com;

Mike Lindblom: 206-515-5631

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