Washington state scrambles to erect temporary bridge after collapse

MOUNT VERNON, WASH. — The Globe and Mail

The collapsed bridge is a busy thoroughfare between B.C. and Washington. (Elaine Thompson/AP)

U.S. officials will look into erecting a temporary span after an Interstate 5 bridge collapsed into Washington State’s Skagit River when an Albertan truck driver struck a support beam with an oversized load.

Three people, including a University of British Columbia student, suffered non-life-threatening injuries.

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The interstate is the major thoroughfare connecting B.C. and Washington State. The collapse happened on the U.S. Memorial Day weekend, which is also the weekend of the popular Sasquatch music festival in Quincy, Wash., which many Canadians typically attend.

At a news conference on Friday, Governor Jay Inslee called the interstate an “artery of commerce” and said officials were “launching a full-scale pursuit of restoring this corridor as fast as possible.” About 70,000 motorists use the bridge daily.

“There is a possibility we can use what’s known as a ‘Bailey bridge,’ which was something that was built and developed in World War 2, to span this 160-foot section,” he said. “We are searching the entire country right now, trying to find a Bailey bridge that might be able to provide us with a temporary span.”

The incident was triggered when the southbound semi truck – carrying a large, empty, steel box – struck at least one overhead support beam, said Sergeant Kirk Rudeen of Washington State Patrol.

The truck managed to drive to safety, but two vehicles behind it – a pickup truck carrying a husband and wife and a Subaru with a lone male – plunged about 15 metres into the river in approximately 4 1/2 metres of water. They were taken to hospital with minor injuries.

The driver, William Scott, 41, of Alberta, was headed to Vancouver, Wash., at the time, Sgt. Rudeen said. Mr. Scott has co-operated with investigators, going to hospital for a voluntary blood draw, the results of which are not yet available. However, Sgt. Rudeen said there is no early indication of drug or alcohol impairment.

“Our role now is to determine the actions of the truck prior to the collision and work backwards to answer why he hit the bridge,” Sgt. Rudeen said. Police will be looking into factors such as whether Mr. Scott violated the terms of his truck permit or committed a driving infraction. It is too early to speculate whether any charge would be laid, Sgt. Rudeen said.

Mr. Scott’s wife, Cynthia, said she spoke with him right after he saw the bridge crash into the river and doesn’t believe he was responsible for the collapse.

“He looked in the mirrors and it just dropped out of sight,” she said Friday from the couple’s home on a rural property near Spruce Grove, Alta., just west of Edmonton. “I spoke to him seconds after it happened. He was just horrified.”

“They’re saying in the news that he plowed into the [bridge] and I’m going, ‘No, he didn’t plow into anything.’ ”

The Washington State Department of Transportation had granted Mullen Trucking, Mr. Scott’s employer, a permit to carry its oversized load across the bridge. Ms. Scott said a special car equipped with poles, typically 1 1/2 metres higher than the highest point of a load, had travelled the truck’s route beforehand to make sure everything would fit.

Dan Sligh and his wife, the couple in the pickup truck, were heading to a camping trip when the bridge before them disappeared in a “big puff of dust.”

“I hit the brakes and we went off,” Mr. Sligh told reporters from a hospital, adding he “saw the water approaching … you hold on as tight as you can.”

Mr. Sligh said his shoulder was dislocated in the drop into the water, and he found himself “belly deep in water in the truck.” He said he popped his shoulder back in and called out to his wife, whom he described as being in shock initially as they waited for rescuers to arrive in boats.

Bryce Kenning, the 20-year-old UBC student in the Subaru, was taken to United General Hospital in Sedro-Woolley. He lived in Mount Vernon and goes to school in B.C. KIRO-TV reported he was on his way to a pickup hockey game in Bellingham at the time of the collapse.

“I’m overwhelmed by the support I’ve received from this accident,” he tweeted on Friday. “Thank you all so much for your prayers! Miracles do happen!”

The bridge was not classified as structurally deficient, but a Federal Highway Administration database listed it as being “functionally obsolete” – a category that means the bridge design is outdated and there may be narrow shoulders or low clearance underneath.

The bridge was built in 1955 and has a sufficiency rating of 57.4 out of 100, federal records indicate. That is well below the statewide average rating of 80, according to an Associated Press analysis of federal data.

Late afternoon Friday, the investigators remained on scene surveying the wreckage.

With reports from The Canadian Press and Associated Press

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