State scours U.S. for temporary Skagit River bridge

  • By Bill Sheets and Jerry Cornfield Herald Writers
  • Friday, May 24, 2013 8:02am

MOUNT VERNON — Gov. Jay Inslee said May 24 that it may be possible to install a temporary structure to replace the Skagit River Bridge over I-5 in Mount Vernon.

He said officials are “scouring the nation” for one of the World War II-era structures known as a Bailey bridge, a type of portable bridge used during World War II by British and American military engineering units.

Inslee said the timeline to fix the bridge is “indeterminate: saying it could be weeks or months before the corridor is restored.”

He said the state will conduct an investigation along with the National Transportation Safety Board. He said it will be a very thorough investigation. Inslee also issued a proclamation this morning that says repairs could cost $15 million.

The north end of the bridge collapsed just after 7 p.m. Thursday, plunging into the river and taking two vehicles down with it. All three occupants suffered only minor injuries.

A tall truck carrying a load of drill equipment hit several overhead trusses on the bridge just before the collapse. This started a chain reaction in the bridge structure that caused all four lanes of the bridge deck to give way, Phelps said.

“It was definitely the truck,” he said.

The stretch of I-5 where the bridge is located carries more than 70,000 vehicles per day. Side streets and state highways will bear the burden of detours and are expected to be very congested in the coming summer months, which kick off this weekend with Memorial Day.

The vertical clearance from the roadway to the beam is 14.6 feet. The truck made it off the bridge and the driver remained at the scene and cooperated with investigators.

State Trooper Mark Francis told the Skagit Valley Herald the driver works for Mullen Trucking in Alberta. The tractor-trailer, which was marked as an oversize load, was hauling a housing for drilling equipment to Vancouver, Wash., he said. The top right front corner of the load struck several trusses on the north end of the bridge, Francis said.

An accident report said the driver was William Scott of Spruce Grove, Alberta, near Edmonton. He voluntarily gave a blood sample for an alcohol test and was not arrested.

Initially, it wasn’t clear if the bridge just gave way on its own. But at an overnight news conference, Washington State Patrol Chief John Batiste blamed it on the too-tall load.

The U.S government has promised some aid to help pay for repairs. Washington will receive an initial $1 million, a spokeswoman for Inslee said this morning.

U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood spoke with Inslee May 24 and said those funds will be released immediately and additional dollars will be available as the reconstruction process moves forward.

Also, Inslee declared an emergency in Skagit, Snohomish and Whatcom counties as a result of the collapse.

LaHood also spoke with members of Washington state’s congressional delegation.

Rep. Rick Larsen, D-Wash., said the secretary told him an interagency task force has been set up to expedite the permitting process for the bridge repair.

“Members of my staff have been at the scene since last night and are working from the Emergency Operations Center in Mount Vernon,” Larsen said in a statement. “My office is coordinating with local, state and federal officials as repairs are planned and executed.”

Meanwhile, WSDOT has set up detours. The closest bridge nearby is mostly used for local traffic between Mount Vernon and Burlington. The department also is recommending detours using Highway 20 and Highway 9 that add tens of miles to a trip.

Dan Sligh and his wife, of Oak Harbor, were in their pickup on I-5 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,” Sligh told reporters from a hospital, adding he “saw the water approaching … you hold on as tight as you can.”

Sligh, his wife and a Conway man in a different vehicle were dumped into the chilly waters of the Skagit River.

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, who he described as being in shock initially as they waited for rescuers to arrive in boats.

The bridge was inspected twice last year and repairs were made, Transportation Secretary Lynn Peterson said.

“It’s an older bridge that needs a lot of work just like a good number of bridges around the state,” she said.

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