Washington State Bridge Collapses; 3 People Injured

The collapse sent people and vehicles into the water Thursday night. Authorities say there were no fatalities. The bridge, about an hour north of Seattle, lost its northernmost span — taking out all lanes in both directions.

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

On a Friday, it's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm David Greene.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

And I'm Renee Montagne. We're going to hear now about the collapse of a bridge that, after so much bad news this week, is kind of a relief. There were only minor injuries. Still, it's a key bridge for those traveling from Washington state into Canada. It puts a big gap in the northernmost stretch of Interstate 5, a major highway that runs all the way to Mexico.

The bridge in Washington state crosses the Skagit River, about an hour north of Seattle. NPR's Martin Kaste reports on its untimely, rush-hour collapse.

MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: Darrell Hamburg is in charge of maintenance on the levy on the Skagit River's south bank. And he was on the scene just a few minutes after the bridge collapsed, around 7 p.m.

DENNIS HAMBURG: The freeway was gone. The bridge was in the river, and the freeway was gone.

KASTE: The bridge lost its northernmost span, taking out all the lanes in both directions. The span's twisted-steel remains sat half-submerged in the river, about 20 feet down.

HAMBURG: And I saw an individual standing on his car, and all I could do is shrug to him because I couldn't get to him. And then the emotions took over, and you could just feel the adrenaline going through you - saying, oh, my gosh, is this for real?

(SOUNDBITE OF MOTORBOATS)

KASTE: It didn't take long for rescuers to swarm into the river. Jet skis and motorboats buzzed around for two hours, until sunset. Hundreds of people from the nearby towns of Mount Vernon and Burlington watched from the shore, many holding candles. Danny Ruiz was passing them out.

DANNY RUIZ: We're setting candles out for the ones that can't make it or the ones that need help, and hoping that they make it through.

KASTE: But as those candles were being distributed, officials were already breathing a sigh of relief. Washington Gov. Jay Inslee.

GOV. JAY INSLEE: Due to some very deft and very on-the-spot rescue work by a great emergency response team, three people were removed from the Skagit River, taken to local hospitals. Our hearts are with them and their families, but we are very happy that it appears that there have not been fatalities this evening.

KASTE: And they already have an idea what may have triggered the collapse.

JOHN BATISTE: We have the truck.

KASTE: Washington State Patrol Chief John Batiste.

BATISTE: For reasons unknown at this point in time, the semi truck struck the overhead of the bridge, causing the collapse.

KASTE: There are suspicions that the truck was too tall, or too wide, for the bridge. But even so, it raises the question of why a section of freeway bridge would be so vulnerable. State Transportation Secretary Lynn Peterson says the bridge was not among the state's most run-down. Still, the 57-year-old structure wasn't in the greatest of shape, either.

LYNN PETERSON: It's an older bridge that's in need of constant maintenance and repair. And it was inspected twice last year. Repairs were made. It's an older bridge that needs a lot of work, just like a good amount of the bridges around the state.

KASTE: The National Transportation Safety Board is sending a team to investigate the collapse. In the meantime, the state has to figure out how to live with the gap in I-5, the principal artery between Vancouver, Canada; and Seattle. There is another bridge nearby, meant for street-level traffic, and local resident Ron Engstrom winces at the thought of all that interstate traffic getting re-routed through town.

RON ENGSTROM: For two years or three years for rebuilding that, it's going to be H-E double toothpicks.

KASTE: The governor's advice for Washington drivers: lots of patience.

Martin Kaste, NPR News.

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