Barge strikes Okla. bridge, sending vehicles into river

At least 7 dead, four hurt

conditions delay search for trapped motorists

Captain might have blacked out

May 27, 2002|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

A barge crashed into an interstate highway bridge about 65 miles southeast of Tulsa, Okla., early yesterday, collapsing a 600-foot-long section of the four-lane highway and sending as many as nine cars and trucks tumbling into the Arkansas River, the authorities said. The Oklahoma Highway Patrol estimated the number of dead at 7 to 20; four people were injured.

The accident occurred shortly before 8 a.m. when the barge struck one of the concrete pilings supporting the 2,000- foot-long bridge on Interstate 40 in Webbers Falls, said Rebecca Smith, a spokeswoman for Muskogee County Emergency Medical Services. A minute or so later, part of the bridge collapsed into the river, Smith said.

Witnesses said several cars plummeted 60 feet into the fast-running river as the bridge gave way beneath them. Other vehicles, including at least two tractor-trailers and a horse trailer, fell off the precipice afterward, unable to stop in time. Some drivers could not see the gap ahead because it was on the side of the bridge's crest opposite them, witnesses said.

A few motorists were rescued by boaters who saw the collapse and rushed to help, but others apparently could not escape from their sinking cars, Smith said.

"I saw three semis go in," said Fred Benton, who was camping on the shore and was in one of the first boats to reach the site, where the barge was still lodged beneath huge concrete slabs of the bridge.

No victims had been identified as of last night, but Gov. Frank Keating, who spoke yesterday afternoon near the accident site, said the death toll could run as high as 20 and might include families who were traveling on the holiday weekend.

The cause of the accident was unclear yesterday. Crew members on the tugboat that was pulling the 495-foot barge recalled seeing the captain black out and fall to the deck shortly before the accident, Keating said. The captain is being treated at a hospital in nearby Muskogee, the governor said.

Several hundred emergency vehicles clogged the area around the bridge yesterday, as cranes struggled to stabilize the barge and divers tried unsuccessfully to recover bodies. On the river, rescue workers gathered floating car seats, children's clothing and other debris from the sunken cars.

The barge, one of two being towed by the same boat, had just dropped off a load of asphalt and was headed north, said officials at the Oklahoma Highway Patrol. It struck the bridge near its western edge, far from the marked channel, which runs through the middle of the bridge's span, according to a map produced by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Shane Guthrie, a personnel manager for the Magnolia Marine Transport Co. in Vicksburg, Miss., told the Associated Press that the company's tugboat was towing the two barges when the accident occurred. None of the seven aboard the barge was injured, Guthrie said.

The National Transportation Safety Board is sending a team to investigate the accident, Keating said. State transportation officials are also checking the bridge material to see if it helped cause the collapse, said Terri Angier, a spokeswoman for the Oklahoma Transportation Department.

Divers from a local fire department and the Oklahoma Lake Patrol tried to rescue people trapped underwater yesterday afternoon but were delayed by the instability of the barge and the collapsed bridge section, Smith said.

"There is lots of debris and fast water - there's no visibility," said Doug McLaughlin, a volunteer firefighter working as a diver. The cars and trucks were submerged in 25 feet of water, he said.

Wanda Morgan, who lives less than a mile from the bridge, said she and her husband rushed out of their house after they heard what sounded like an explosion shortly before 8 a.m. "I saw two cars go off the bridge," she said. "They were there and then they just went off and there was a big splash of water."

Several fishermen who were taking part in a bass-fishing tournament on the river helped gather suitcases, clothing, candy wrappers and other debris that was drifting in the water shortly afterward.

"All kinds of people tried to help," said Benton, the camper. "Then I saw a baby shoe, and I just quit looking."

Emergency workers were preparing the gym at Webbers Falls High School, less than a mile from the bridge, for use as a morgue, witnesses said.

Four survivors were being treated yesterday at Muskogee Regional Medical Center, about 20 miles away, said Ken Laubenstein, a hospital spokesman.

Interstate 40 is the main east-west highway through Oklahoma. The bridge, about 35 miles west of the Arkansas border, typically carries 20,000 vehicles a day, Keating said. One or two barges pass under the bridge a day, transporting about 4 million tons of cargo a year, he added.

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