Tug company involved in bridge crash says studies indicate channel had shallow bottom

Saturday, September 22nd 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

PORT ISABEL, Texas (AP) _ The owner of a tugboat that pushed barges into a bridge connecting South Padre Island to the mainland, collapsing part of the bridge and killing at least five people, said studies indicate the channel was too shallow and that navigation lights malfunctioned.

Stephen Mosher, president of Brown Water Towing I, Inc. of Rockport, said Friday that seismic surveys and sonar data showed the tug touched bottom.

The Coast Guard insists the channel was properly maintained at a 14-foot depth. Coast Guard spokesman Alan Grodecki said there apparently was a strong current at the time, but he said the Coast Guard is still investigating.

``We grieve for the victims and their families and, out of respect for their losses and in the name of justice, we will continue to investigate the facts surrounding this tragic accident,'' Mosher said.

Five deaths have been confirmed since three 80-foot sections of the bridge collapsed Sept. 15, and three people are still missing.

The underwater search among the fallen cement slabs, bristling with steel reinforcing bar, has been hazardous for the search crews. Members of a Navy dive team have broken umbilical lines and cut themselves on the submerged metal. They had to cut one license plate off a car and retrieve it from the murky water so it could be read.

On Thursday, divers found the wreckage of the last two vehicles that tumbled 80 feet from the bridge into a Laguna Madre channel.

``It looked like a war zone down there,'' Navy Master Diver Duncan Allred said. ``There was no way to tell whether any bodies were inboard or not, but we suspect that they're there. However, it's going to take some heavy lifting equipment to get them out.''

The 2-mile-long Queen Isabella Causeway was the only vehicular link from the mainland to the South Padre Island resort. It carried more than 19,000 vehicles a day.

Gov. Rick Perry said a disaster declaration, which cleared the way for money for repairs, will also provide funds for transporting people and vehicles to and from the island, by ferry service or other means.

Texas Attorney General John Cornyn has also sued Brown Water to recover damages to the causeway.

Amadeo Saenz, with the Texas Department of Transportation, said contractors will demolish two more sections of the bridge, then stabilize the span so debris can be cleared. Repairing the bridge is expected to take about four months and cost as much as $5 million.