(USA TODAY) - Written by William M. Welch and Doug Stanglin
The collision of a truck's excessively tall load with an overhead girder triggered the collapse of an Interstate-5 bridge over the Skagit River and sent two vehicles plummeting into the icy river 50-feet below, Washington State Patrol Chief John Batiste said Friday.
Three people were hospitalized with non-life threatening injuries Thursday evening, but there were no fatalities.
The State Patrol said the truck driver works for Mullen Trucking in Alberta. The tractor-trailer was hauling a housing for drilling equipment to Vancouver, Wash., when the top right front corner of the load struck several trusses on the north end of the bridge, the patrol said.
The driver, William Scott, of Spruce Grove, Alberta, near Edmonton, voluntarily gave a blood sample for an alcohol test and was not arrested. A top company official said Scott was amazed by what he saw happen.
"He's a little bit bewildered," Ed Scherbinski, vice president of Mullen Trucking, said in an interview with The Associated Press. "He looks in the (rear-view) mirror and the bridge is coming down behind him."
The 1,111-foot steel-and-concrete bridge, built in 1955, is listed by the National Bridge Inventory as "fracture critical," which means that the entire structure can be brought down if even one major part fails, The Seattle Times reported.
Bridges that have redundant features are designed to remain intact if one a single section is damaged.
The trucking company said it received a state-issued permit to carry its oversized load across the bridge. Scherbinski said the Washington state Department of Transportation had approved of the company's plan to drive the equipment along the route.
He also said the company hired a local escort to help navigate the route. He said the driver was well-experienced with handling oversized loads.
"This is what we do for a living. We pride ourselves in doing things the proper way," he said.
Mike Allende, a state DOT spokesman, confirmed the truck had its permit.
"We're still trying to figure out why it hit the bridge," he said. "It's ultimately up to the trucking company to figure out whether it can get through. It's their responsibility to make sure the load they have can travel on that route."
Cynthia Scott, of Spruce Grove, Alberta, said she spoke with her husband moments after he saw the bridge fall into a river in his rear-view mirror. Cynthia Scott said there was a small ding in one of the front corners of the load.
Dave Chesson, a state DOT spokesman, said there were no signs leading up to the bridge warning about its clearance height.
State officials said it could be weeks before the bridge, which carries 70,000 cars a day, can be reopened.
That will be a headache for local and long-distance travelers alike, as I-5 is the main artery between Seattle, 60 miles south, and Canada.
Dan Sligh, 47, and his wife Sally were off on a Memorial Day camping trip in their pickup truck when the bridge stretching out ahead suddenly disappeared in a "big puff of dust."
"I hit the brakes and we went off," Sligh told reporters from a hospital, adding he "saw the water approaching ... you hold on as tight as you can."
Sligh said he dislocated his shoulder but managed to climb out of the vehicle. His wife was knocked unconscious, and he kept her head above water until rescuers arrived more than an hour later.
Emergency teams also rescued one man sitting on top of his car, prompting bystanders to applaud when he reached dry land.
Jeremiah Thomas, a volunteer firefighter, said he was driving nearby when he glimpsed something out of the corner of his eye and turned to look.
"The bridge just went down, it crashed through the water," he said. "It was really surreal."
The bridge, which was classified by the NBI as "functionally obsolete," was inspected twice last year and repaired, according to the state Transportation Secretary Lynn Peterson.
The 58-year-old bridge has a sufficiency rating of 57.4 out of 100, according to federal records. That is well below the statewide average rating of 80, according to an Associated Press analysis of federal data, but 759 bridges in the state have a lower sufficiency score.
According to a 2012 Skagit County Public Works Department report, 42 of the county's 108 bridges are 50 years or older. The document says eight of the bridges are more than 70 years old and two are over 80.
Washington state was given a C in the American Society of Civil Engineers' 2013 infrastructure report card and a C- when it came to the state's bridges. The group said more than a quarter of Washington's 7,840 bridges are considered structurally deficient or functionally obsolete.
The National Transportation Safety Board announced it is launching an investigation into the collapse.
Contributing: Associated Press