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.