(Orange, Texas)

August 3, 2007

Could it happen here? TxDOT: Area bridges safe, collapse not likely

By Ashley Sanders

The Orange Leader

Dennis and Jamie Winegar of Houston were stuck in late rush-hour traffic when the Mississippi River bridge beneath them began to shake. Their nephew yelled, “It’s an earthquake!”

“Then we realized the bridge was collapsing,” Jamie Winegar said. “Boom, boom, boom, and we were just dropping, dropping, dropping, dropping.”

Behind the wheel, Dennis Winegar fought to keep the family’s Chrysler 300M under control.

“I slammed on my brakes and saw something in front of me disappear and then my car pointed straight down and we fell.” He estimated they dropped about 50 feet, landing on a smaller car below them.

Frightening images and harrowing tales are continuing to come to light in the wake of Wednesday’s tragic collapse of the 1-35W overpass in Minneapolis, Minn. Along with those images and stories like the Winegars comes the question, could something like this happen in Southeast Texas?

According to Texas Department of Transportation Public Information Officer Marc Shepherd, the answer is no.

“We do rigorous inspections twice a year on all of our bridges,” Shepherd said. “If we find anything that appears it could pose a threat to public welfare, we will shut down a bridge.”

Shepherd said residents should feel safe crossing the 1,400 bridges TxDot oversees in the area’s local eight county district — even the Rainbow Bridge, which was constructed in 1938.

“We send a team of people to inspect the Rainbow and Veterans’ Bridges,” Shepherd said of the structures connecting Bridge City to Port Arthur. “The Rainbow Bridge was reworked in the late 1990s and we continue to maintain safety guidelines. We will never hold off on shutting down a bridge we deem to be dangerous.”

As investigators continued Thursday morning to search for the cause of the collapse and first responders kept up efforts to recover victims from the murky Mississippi waters, the White House released a statement criticizing the oversight of recent inspection findings of the I35 bridge.

The White House said an inspection of the 40-year-old bridge in 2005 found problems. The Interstate 35W span rated 50 on a scale of 100 for structural stability and was classified as “structurally deficient,” transportation officials said.

The designation means some portions of the bridge needed to be scheduled for repair or replacement. “It didn’t mean that the bridge is unsafe,” Transportation Secretary Mary Peters said.

Earlier, at the White House, press secretary Tony Snow said while the inspection didn’t indicate the bridge was at risk of failing, “If an inspection report identifies deficiencies, the state is responsible for taking corrective actions.”

Shepherd said regardless of who is to blame for the collapse, other states will most likely take the knowledge gained from this tragedy to improve state overpasses and bridges.

The official death count from Wednesday evening’s collapse stood at four as of press time Thursday, but Police Chief Tim Dolan said more bodies were in the water. Hospitals officials confirmed 79 others were injured.

Twelve vehicles had been located in the river, officials said, still more were lodged under heavy sections of concrete.

“We have a number of vehicles that are underneath big pieces of concrete, and we do know we have some people in those vehicles,” Dolan said. “We know we do have more casualties at the scene.”

The eight-lane Interstate 35W bridge, a major Minneapolis artery, was in the midst of repairs when it buckled during the evening rush hour. Dozens of cars plummeted more than 60 feet into the Mississippi River, some falling on top one of another.

The bridge is the state’s busiest, and carries approximately 141,000 vehicles per day.

The steel-arched bridge, built in 1967, rose 64 feet above the river and stretched 1,900 feet across the water. It was built with a single 458-foot-long steel arch to avoid the need for piers that might interfere with river navigation. The depth of the water underneath the bridge is between 4 to 14 feet, according to the Army Corps of Engineers.

Shepherd said no local bridges share the same construction design as the collapsed Minnesota bridge.

The Associated Press contributed to this article.