SEATTLE — Dan Sligh was on his way to a camping trip with his wife and Navy colleagues when he noticed the oversized truck in front of him on Interstate 5 seemed about four feet too wide on the right side for the bridge they were approaching near Mount Vernon, Wash.
“I kept saying, ‘Anytime you want to move over to the left, it’d be OK,’ ” Sligh told reporters. But just then, he said, another truck came up on the left of the oversize vehicle and the wide-load hit the approach spans to the four-lane bridge.
“There was a big puff of dust, and I hit the brakes. The weight of the trailer and everything else, [we] went right off the bridge as it collapsed into the Skagit River,” Sligh said.
“The forward momentum just carried us right over, and as you saw the water approaching, it was just one of those things, you hold on as tight as you can,” he said, describing “a white flash, and cold water.”
The collapse of the northern span of the four-lane, 1,111-foot steel-and-concrete bridge shortly after 7 p.m. Thursday sent two vehicles and a trailer into the ice-cold river, triggering an urgent rescue effort as Sligh, his wife and another driver clung to their half-submerged vehicles.
All three were transported to hospitals and two were subsequently released, while Sligh’s wife, Sally Sligh, remained hospitalized Friday morning in stable condition.
Washington’s main north-south thoroughfare, though, was likely to remain closed 60 miles north of Seattle for an indefinite period, state officials warned. The nearly 71,000 vehicles a day that travel the bridge between Mt. Vernon and Burlington were diverted through city streets to another nearby bridge.
“I’m going to make sure this bridge is replaced as quickly as humanly possible. We’ll find a way to do this,” Gov. Jay Inslee told reporters.
Lynn Peterson, the state Transportation secretary, said a determination would be made as quickly as possible on whether to replace the entire bridge, or merely the segment that plunged into the river in a mass of twisted steel.
“We have to have some time to make sure we understand what damage was done,” she said.
Washington State Patrol Chief John Batiste confirmed that an oversize semi-trailer truck traveling southbound stuck an overhead beam on the steel-truss bridge, triggering a failure.
“The size of the load he was carrying appeared to create a problem, causing him to strike the bridge,” Batiste told reporters.
“We do have the truck driver who remained at the scene. We’ve had initial conversations with him to get an indication as to what occurred,” he said. The state patrol was encouraging anyone who witnessed the incident to phone in with reports.
The National Transportation Safety Board also was launching an investigation. It was not known whether the condition of the bridge played a role in the mishap.
The condition of the nation’s aging bridge infrastructure has been an issue of concern since 2007, when a bridge fell into the Mississippi River in Minnesota, killing 13 people.
The 58-year-old bridge in Washington, a crucial link to the Canadian border traveled heavily by trucks, was inspected every two years, most recently in November, state Department of Transportation spokesman Bart Treece told the Los Angeles Times.
“It’s an old bridge. We have to look into the specifics. We do have a lot of old, aging structures, and a lot of them hold up really well,” he said.
The National Bridge Inventory lists the bridge as “functionally obsolete,” with “somewhat better than minimum adequacy to tolerate being left in place as is.” It received a sufficiency rating of 57.4 out of 100.
But state officials emphasized that a rating of functionally obsolete does not necessarily imply a safety hazard, but instead describes the bridge’s configuration in relation to current standards and traffic demands. Such a rating can be given in response to such things as substandard lane widths or narrow shoulders.
“Another example would be a bridge that doesn’t have enough vertical clearance for large trucks to pass under, causing repeat hits and damage to the bridge,” the transportation department said in a recent report.
State officials listed 394 structurally deficient bridges in Washington as of 2010, with 95% of the state’s bridges being rated as good or fair, and 152 in poor condition.
It appeared that injuries were minimized during Friday evening’s collapsed because vehicles traveling on the bridge, rather than plunging the full 50 feet into the river, rode the concrete as it shrank down to the water, about 15 feet deep near the bridge.
“They were both half-submerged, but there’s bridge material that’s underneath them that was basically keeping them from going completely into the water,” Marcus Deyerin, spokesman for the Washington Incident Management Team, said in an interview.
“But I can tell you from personal experience, this time of year that water is pretty cold, because we’ve had so much snow melt.”
Sligh said his shoulder was dislocated with the impact as the top of his pickup truck caved in and its windshield shattered. His wife was initially silent in the passenger seat as they sat in “belly-deep” water, he said.
“I popped my shoulder back in … and pulled her over to my side, which had less water.”
Sligh said he began talking with the driver of a small sport utility vehicle who was climbing out of his car, and the two of them tried to determine whether anyone else had gone into the river.
“That was our biggest fear at that point, that somebody was submerged,” Sligh said.
But the trailer he was towing was caught in the swirling current, and “initially, it was wiggling,” he said. Sligh said he put on his emergency brake and set the vehicle in park, and it “seemed solid” after that.
By that time, rescue boats were arriving. His wife was quivering with shock and “semi-hysteric,” he said.
“I knew I had to stay calm to keep her calm,” he said.
One of the divers climbed onto a piece of concrete wedged near the truck and after several tries successfully pried open the passenger-side door, pulling both of them to safety.
“I’m blessed,” Sligh said. “I’m blessed to be alive today.”