Five confirmed dead, up to four missing after bridge collapse that sent cars into channel

Tuesday, September 18th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

PORT ISABEL, Texas (AP) _ Underwater debris has complicated the search for people who drove off the Queen Isabella Causeway after the bridge partially collapsed when barges and a tugboat slammed into it.

The death toll stood at five as divers called off the search for the night on Monday, two days after barges crashed into a base of the bridge and knocked two 80-foot sections into the water.

Trooper Adrian Rivera of the Texas Department of Public Safety said three or four people remain missing. Recovery operations were to resume Tuesday morning.

``It took about twice as long as we thought,'' Lt. Lynn Dixon, leader of a team of 15 divers, said Monday. ``There's so much debris, it's difficult to orient yourself.''

The bridge is the only one linking the mainland to South Padre Island, one of the Gulf Coast's premier tourist destinations.

The department said authorities have recovered the bodies of Port Isabel Fire Chief Robert Harris, 46, Stevan Rivas, 22, Robin Leavell, 29, and Giaspar Hinojosa. The fifth victim was seen in a car in the water but the body has not been recovered or identified.

Amadeo Saenz, a Texas Department of Transportation spokesman, said officials will have to tear down an additional 80 feet of the bridge and remove several columns before the structure can be repaired.

Repairs to the bridge could take up to four months to complete. Ferries are being set up for travel between the mainland and the island, providing limited access to a five-mile stretch of hotels, water parks, restaurants and T-shirt shops.

Coast Guard spokesman Lt. Robert Wyman said the five operators of the tug pushing the 400-foot barge will be subpoenaed next week.

Investigators will look into whether the barges were overloaded, whether the skipper was awake at the time of the accident and whether the vessel had sufficient power to maneuver its way through the currents.

Stephen Mosher, president of Brown Water Towing, which owns the tug, said navigation lights on the causeway were not working at the time of the crash. Mosher also said the vessel struck an unmarked sandbar within the channel that caused it to veer off course.

Wyman said all of the Coast Guard's channel markers, buoys and lights are working properly.

Members of the Gulf Coast Mariners Association in Houma, La., said they have been complaining about working conditions on tugs for years.

The organization contends the Coast Guard is failing to enforce the ''12-hour rule,'' which aims to prevent fatigue by limiting time at the helm. Wyman said he could not immediately comment on the 12-hour rule.

Wyman said that a relief captain, David Fowler, was piloting the tug when the accident occurred. He was questioned and passed a sobriety test, officials said.