Quebec promises to get answers in overpass collapse

Monday, October 2nd 2006, 8:38 am
By: News On 6

LAVAL, Quebec (AP) _ Quebec's government said Sunday it would launch a public inquiry to determine why an overpass collapsed north of Montreal, crushing five people to death.

Visiting the accident site Sunday, Quebec Premier Jean Charest gave his condolences to the families of the victims and said an inquiry by a former provincial leader would seek to shed light on the disaster.

``We don't know how this happened,'' Charest said. ``The initial info we have leads us not to be able to understand how the bridge fell. We're going to want to find out how this happened and why this happened.''

There appeared to have been some advance warning signs of trouble with the overpass in Laval before Saturday's collapse, which also injured six people. One witness told TVA television network that he noticed the road had sunk an inch or two when he drove on the overpass minutes before the collapse and he called emergency dispatchers.

Transport Quebec, the province's transportation ministry, also heard about an hour before the accident that some pieces of concrete were falling off the overpass, said spokeswoman Josee Seguin.

She said Transport Quebec then issued an advisory to traffic reporters on the debris and an inspector from the agency was sent to the site, but it remained open.

Not long after that, a 65-foot stretch of the viaduct collapsed, sending several vehicles crashing onto Highway 19 below.

``It is a viaduct that had never, until now, shown any signs of weakness,'' said Laval Mayor Gilles Vaillancourt. ``It wasn't on the list of viaducts and bridges that needed to be repaired or replaced.''

Seguin said the overpass was built in 1970. Vaillancourt said it had passed an inspection test last year.

The crushed cars were pulled out about 15 hours after Saturday's lunchtime accident. Firefighters and other workers had to use cranes and other heavy machinery to break up the concrete into as many as 18 huge slabs to remove it.

Vehicles were crushed so badly they barely reached the knees of one firefighter when lifted from under tons of concrete rubble Sunday.

Three people were found in one car and two bodies were recovered from another, police spokeswoman Isabelle Gendron said. Police said six people were injured, including two who were listed in critical condition, when a minivan and a motorcycle plunged off the overpass.

Robert Hotte, one of the injured, was driving over the viaduct when the road in front of him began to disappear.

``I was wondering ... what is happening,'' he said. ``As we went down with the bridge, my first words were to say 'Anne-Marie,' the name of my girlfriend. We went down, falling with the bridge. It was all dark.''

The vehicle crashed into the debris below, landing on its passenger-side window. He and his girlfriend crawled out a window and were taken to the hospital.

Hotte suffered minor injuries and was released. His girlfriend remained in the hospital in stable condition on Sunday with some internal bleeding, he said.

It was the second serious overpass collapse in Laval in the last six years.

In 2000, a man died when a section of overpass that had been under construction for six months collapsed and eight 70-ton beams fell on the car he was riding in.

A coroner's report later concluded a construction company did not properly secure the concrete beams, and accused the province's construction industry of shoddy work and questionable corporate practices.