SEATTLE – The chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board said Saturday the bridge collapse in Washington state is a wake-up call for the nation.
“This is a really significant event and we need to learn from it, not just in Washington but around the country,” Debbie Hersman said after taking a boat ride on the Skagit River below the dramatic scene where a truck bumped against the steel framework, collapsing the bridge and sending two vehicles and three people falling into the chilly water.
Investigators need to find out what happened in Washington and if it could be repeated at similar bridges around the country, Hersman said.
“At the end of the day it’s about preventing an accident like this,” she said.
Her team will spend a week to 10 days looking at the bridge, talking to the truck driver whose vehicle hit it, and examining maintenance documents and previous accident reports.
Other over-height vehicles struck the Skagit River bridge before the collapse Thursday, she said. Investigators are using a high tech 3-D video camera to review the scene and try to pinpoint where the bridge failure began.
Hersman said she does not expect the investigation to delay removal of debris from the river or work on a temporary solution to replace or repair the Interstate 5 span. State and federal officials will work together on the investigation, she said, watching for safety issues that could affect other bridges.
“The results can be very catastrophic,” Hersman said. “We’re very fortunate in this situation.”
Washington state officials said Saturday that it will take time to find both short- and long-term fixes for the bridge.
While the NTSB finishes its inspection, state workers will begin removing debris from the river. Next, a temporary solution will be put in place to return traffic to Washington state’s most important north-south highway.
Inspectors are working to find out whether the disintegration Thursday of the heavily used span over the Skagit River, 60 miles north of Seattle and 40 miles south of the Canadian border, was a fluke or a sign of bigger problems.
“These things take time. We want to make sure it’s done right, done thoroughly,” Washington Transportation Department spokesman Bart Treece said.
A trucker was hauling a load of drilling equipment Thursday evening when his load bumped against the steel framework over the bridge. He looked in his rearview mirror and saw the span collapse into the water behind him.
Motorists should not expect to drive on I-5 between Mount Vernon and Burlington for many weeks and possibly months, Treece said.