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Oversized Semi Blamed For Bridge Collapse In Washington State


This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.


And I'm Robert Siegel.

It will be weeks or even months before traffic can resume across a bridge on a major highway that links Washington state to Canada. Last night, a section of that bridge on Interstate 5 collapsed after a semi-tractor trailer struck a steel support beam. Two cars plunged into the Skagit River. Amazingly, only three people were hurt, and their injuries were minor.

NPR's Martin Kaste joins us from the scene of that incident in Mount Vernon, Washington. And, Martin, what does it look like where you are? And what are you hearing today about this bridge collapse?

MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: Well, today, it's a scene where the - where local officials are taking a closer look at the ruins of that one section of the bridge that fell into the water, just in front of me here. That whole section is gone. You can't get across on either side, but most of the bridge is still there. So it's basically just a gap.

What's happening right now is there's an investigation team from the National Transportation Safety Board that's just arrived. They're going to launch their investigation here shortly. But state officials seem pretty convinced that they already know what happened. They're blaming an oversized semi-truck from Canada that appears to have hit one or more of the steel girders in the sort of trestle structure above the bridge decking. They think that that sets something off and brought this bridge down.

And right now, their big priority is finding a way to close that gap, to get people over that bridge again. And they're talking right now about the possibility of something called a Bailey bridge, which is a World War II vintage concept. It's basically a quick assembling portable bridge structure that they might be able to lay across the still standing portions of the bridge here.

SIEGEL: Now, this is a bridge that carries an estimated 70,000 vehicles a day. It's an old bridge. What can you tell us about the condition of the bridge and whether that contributed to what happened?

KASTE: Well, there's a lot - there are a lot of questions about whether it was somehow not up to snuff. A lot of people have sort of focused on the fact that the state had officially termed it functionally obsolete. But state officials have pointed out that what that means, it's a turn of art that just says it's not up to current code. They wouldn't build it this way with this design if they were to build one today.

But it's 57 years old. They inspect it regularly. It was inspected twice last year and repaired, apparently, after another one of these collisions on the deck - on the structure. But they say it is not what they term structurally deficient. They really think this was about the truck.

SIEGEL: I-5 is a major corridor. I assume, with this bridge being knocked out, it must be a blow to economies on both sides of the border.

KASTE: Not just the local communities, but the whole Western Washington Region here. This is the main arterial connection between Vancouver, B.C., down to Portland and Point South. It's a real problem here. Luckily, there are other bridges across the Skagit River, but they're smaller, narrower bridges. But, you know, the whole idea here now is to route traffic across those.

I'm looking at traffic right now, and it's creeping across a city bridge. It's not that bad today, but they're really worried about what it's going to be like when it's not a holiday weekend, when it's regular rush-hour traffic. And it could get pretty hairy here.

SIEGEL: OK. Thanks, Martin.

KASTE: You're welcome.

SIEGEL: That's NPR's Martin Kaste who's in Mount Vernon, Washington where a section of the I-5 Bridge collapsed. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Prior to his retirement, Robert Siegel was the senior host of NPR's award-winning evening newsmagazine All Things Considered. With 40 years of experience working in radio news, Siegel hosted the country's most-listened-to, afternoon-drive-time news radio program and reported on stories and happenings all over the globe, and reported from a variety of locations across Europe, the Middle East, North Africa, and Asia. He signed off in his final broadcast of All Things Considered on January 5, 2018.
Robert Siegel
Robert Siegel is senior host of NPR's award-winning evening newsmagazine All Things Considered. With 40 years of experience working in radio news, Siegel is still at it hosting the country's most-listened-to, afternoon-drive-time news radio program and reporting on stories and happenings all over the globe. As a host, Siegel has reported from a variety of locations across Europe, the Middle East, North Africa and Asia.
Martin Kaste is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. He covers law enforcement and privacy. He has been focused on police and use of force since before the 2014 protests in Ferguson, and that coverage led to the creation of NPR's Criminal Justice Collaborative.

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