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June 11, 2014 at 8:33 AM

Skagit Bridge documents: Did pilot-car pole strike crossbeams?

UPDATE: 11:30 a.m. | The National Transportation Safety Board is trying to untangle hazy and conflicting evidence to determine whether a pilot-car pole hit the Skagit River Bridge shortly before the load on a truck going south destroyed one of the bridge’s four steel-truss spans on May 23, 2013.

Newly released records include interview summaries in which a witness, Dale Ogden, told investigators that the pole struck “four or five” crossbeams. But trucker William Scott, whose 15-foot, 9-inch high load hit the right side of a curved crossbeam, said he didn’t see any unusual motion in the pole.

The pilot-car driver, Tammy DeTray, was in the midst of a six-minute, hands-free cellphone conversation with her husband at 7 p.m., when the incident happened, the NTSB’s interview and cellphone records say. It was a work-related call, she said in a news release last year. In that call, she told her husband, who holds a commercial driver’s license, of her concern about clearances farther ahead on I-405, NTSB records say. In another record, she mentions the I-405 Kirkland pedestrian bridge.  DeTray planned to hand off the high load, carrying a steel casing for drill equipment, to another pilot-car driver before reaching I-405, the NTSB file says.

Another factor is the orientation of the pole, which DeTray and trucker William Scott believe was 16’2″ after several measurements, but which state troopers measured at 16’0.”  The pole was slanted to rise above the center of the pilot car, which was believed to be traveling in the center of the right lane — not the far right where the clearance was its worst. The pole had a foam ball on top, so it wouldn’t have made noise, but Scott said that freeway speeds would cause it to shake rapidly after hitting anything.

In a few weeks, the NTSB will issue findings and hold a public hearing in Washington, D.C.  The agency’s primary mission is to issue safety recommendations, many of which become law.

Lynn Peterson, secretary of the Washington State Department of Transportation, said her agency is working with tech firms to include bridge-clearance data in the most commonly used navigation devices. However, trucker Scott told the NTSB he doesn’t trust his vehicle’s GPS and considers it a distraction, to be used only for local streets at the end of a trip.

State bridge listings, which are available to the trucking industry, show the Skagit River bridge was 14’5″ at its lowest point southbound, over the right shoulder. (The entry includes a three-inch safety margin, so it’s really 14’8″).

Interestingly, Scott might have had a close call down the road at another overpass in Mount Vernon, which provides only 15’9″ of clearance on the far right below Blackburn Street, the same height of his truck load.

UPDATE: 9:10 A.M. | The truck driver whose tall load struck the I-5 Skagit River bridge in May 2013 said he heard “a horrendous boom” and felt a jolt that scattered the items in the cab of his truck, according to the transcript of an interview about the event released today.

Records from the May 23, 2013 collapse, which sent one of the four spans tumbling into the river, were made available this morning by the National Transportation Safety Board.

Trucker William Scott was near the end of a long trip from Canada, and was about to stop for the night near Arlington, when the incident occurred around 7 p.m.

Earlier in the day, he had used offramps to go around low overpasses twice in the Chilliwack, B.C. area – and that the 15-foot, 9-inch high steel well casing he hauled could barely squeeze through a U.S. Customs’ 16-foot tall X-ray machine at the border in Sumas. Scott told the NTSB he was concerned about clearances in Washington state, but a pilot car driver assured him they would be fine.

The pilot car’s pole for measuring overhead heights was 16-feet, 2 inches high, and Scott said he saw it clear the bridge okay, and the pilot-car driver didn’t call out warnings. Scott stayed to the right, but his truck’s load banged the curved crossbeam, which was 15-feet-5 inches at the white stripe on the right side of the road and 14 feet, 8 inches over the shoulder. He told the NTSB:

And we came up towards the — to that bridge. Nobody said nothing. We were all supposed to be where we were supposed to be. There was a freight truck, though, came up very fast on the left — in the left lane and squeezed me as we were coming to the bridge, right. But I had no indication that we couldn’t be where we were. The pole was set at 16’3″ — 16’2″ — sorry — it was set at. And we were into the bridge and all of a sudden it — I can’t say what happened because I had never been in the cab when something like that happened. So it was just a horrendous boom and things were — it was violent in the cab … I’m not a messy guy, but my stuff was everywhere in there, right.

He continued across the bridge, fighting to control the truck. After pulling over, Scott was approached by an older couple who told him the bridge had collapsed. Scott and an “older fellow” walked back to see cars and steel truss beams in the water.

That passing “freight truck,”  carrying bottled water, (see below) didn’t stop.  Later, investigators identified that trucker by using video and witness accounts, and later found him at the Bow weight station during a June run.  The NTSB and Washington State Patrol delved into whether there was a minor sideswipe between the two trucks, by photographing blue paint streaks that may have been caused by Scott’s load grazing the other truck.

EARLIER 8:15 A.M. POST:

At the moment an overheight load broke the Skagit River Bridge on May 23, 2013, a passing trucker had no idea it was falling — thinking instead that the loud crack was a load bouncing and banging against a flatbed.

Amandeep Sidhu heard the sound as his truck passed the truck whose load broke a low, overhead bridge beam, which in turn destabilized the main truss to the right side of the southbound lanes. One span of the four-span Interstate 5 crossing fell into the river, dumping two vehicles but not causing serious injuries.

The National Transportation Safety Board this morning published some 2,000 pages of investigative documents online, but has yet to release its final report about the causes of the collapse. The NTSB earlier reported that trucker William Scott, hauling a high, steel casing used for drilling operations, said he felt “crowded” by the passing truck. Scott stayed to the right, where his 15-foot, 9-inch high load banged the curved crossbeam, which was 15-feet-5 inches at the fog line and 14 feet, 8 inches over the shoulder.  Since then, the Washington State Department of Transportation has cut out and replaced the curved crossbeams with straight beams, so the clearance is a uniform 18 feet.

Sidhu told State Patrol detectives that he was hauling Nestle bottled water from Hope, B.C. to the Tacoma area, and noticed at a weigh station north of the Skagit Bridge that the truck that hit the bridge had a tall well casing . Sidhu then recalled going 62 or 63 mph while passing Scott’s truck and well casing, then the pilot car.  But he had no idea the bridge collapsed until hearing truckers chatting about the news at a fueling station in Arlington.

In an interview with WSP Detective Ed Collins, Sidhu said:

“I don’t remember what time I was the close [closest] on the oversize load,” but that, “I probably was cross to him before the bridge.”  So the detective rolled videotape from a nearby car dealership, that showed the two trucks passing just as they reached the bridge.

This blog will be updated throughout the day, as we look through other documents in today’s NTSB release.

Help us find interesting things in the report

There are 138 documents about the collapse posted on the NTSB website. Do you feel like doing some digging? See if you can find hidden nuggets that a reporter maybe should follow up on. Use the form below to record what you discover. And thanks!

Comments | More in Traffic & Transit | Topics: Skagit bridge collapse

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