I-40 Bridge Collapse: Studies Still Undone

Saturday, April 26th 2003, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

Neither a federal investigation of the deadly bridge collapse near Webbers Falls nor a state study of bridges is complete nearly a year later.

Fourteen people died when barges being pushed by a towboat crashed into the piers of the Interstate 40 bridge, causing it to collapse into the Arkansas River.

It usually takes the National Transportation Safety Board about a year to complete a report on its investigation of a major accident. But the probe hasn't reached the halfway point, The Sunday Oklahoman reported.

The halfway point in the probe is usually marked by release of a "public docket" that includes the accident facts uncovered in the investigation but no analysis or probable cause, board spokesman Keith Holloway said.

One focus of the investigation is whether the accident was affected by the bridge's lack of protective cells on the side that was hit, which remained unprotected after the bridge was rebuilt, Holloway said.

On the state level, the Oklahoma Department of Transportation said it would study bridges on navigation channels after the May 26 accident to determine if putting barriers on unprotected sides of the structures could keep other collapses from occurring.

That study is not finished, The Oklahoman reported.

The U.S. Coast Guard and American Waterways Operators also began studying bridge accidents this past fall.

That survey dispelled assumptions that bridge builders that protective cells should be built primarily to protect from vessels traveling south or downstream, The Oklahoman reported.

The boat and barges, both based in Mississippi, were traveling upstream and hit the unprotected side of the bridge, causing the nation's third deadliest bridge collapse. That joint study also is unfinished.

ODOT has contracted with Modjeski and Masters, of Harrisburg, Pa., to conduct the study of Oklahoma's navigation system, said Greg Allen, ODOT assistant bridge engineer for design.

The consulting engineer will do the study for $1.77 million.

"The NTSB was investigating. The barge company, the victims were investigating," transportation spokeswoman Terri Angier said. "We would be remiss if we didn't do our own investigation."

The 110-year-old company designed the U.S. 59 bridge near Sallisaw and others nationwide.

"They are experts in structure-vessel interaction," Allen said. "We did negotiations with them because of their known expertise."

The company will study, document and graphically detail the cause and chronology of the collapse, costing $1.2 million.

The company is using a metallurgist to study samples to help evaluate structural damage to the barge and bridge.

It will assess bridges in up to 11 locations on Oklahoma's navigation system, analyze the risk for barge hits to the bridges and make recommendations at a cost of up to roughly $462,000. The company so far has claimed roughly $320,000 combined for the work.

"The cheapest alternative would be for the operator to be alert," Angier told The Oklahoman. "We would be happy to supply all the coffee the pilots need.

"The Webbers Falls tragedy caught everybody's attention. We are confident that our bridge did not move in front of the barge."

William Joe Dedmon, 62, the towboat's pilot, blacked out sometime between when a crew member left him alone, about 7:20 a.m., and when the bridge collapsed about 7:48 a.m., attorneys for the towboat company have said.

Dedmon said he drove 12 hours to Fort Smith, Ark., boarded the boat, then worked all day. He fell asleep about 11 p.m. Saturday and awoke about 5 a.m. Sunday, a couple of hours before the accident.

Dedmon was later diagnosed with a heart ailment, according to reports.

Ken Wells, vice president of the southern region for the American Waterways Operators, said the Coast Guard-American Waterways Operators study is close to completion.

"We take, in particular, this accident very, very seriously," Wells said. "We're committed to taking steps to prevent accidents like his in the future. It is a long, laborious process, but we are committed to taking it to get meaningful results for safety."