Monday, June 10, 2013

The bridge wasn’t the only thing that collapsed

A view of the collapsed Skagit River
bridge, looking north. Photo courtesy
of the National Transportation
Safety Board
The oversized load that struck an Interstate 5 bridge in Washington state may have been the straw that broke the camel’s back, but investigators need to consider the other straws.

After a 160-foot section of the bridge collapsed into the Skagit River north of Seattle on May 23, investigators charted an ambitious course to scrutinize the truck, the load, Canadian driver William Scott and his company, Mullen Trucking. They interviewed the pilot car driver and compared everything against the permit. That’s all well and good.

They looked at the bridge, its 60-year history, and its current listing as “fracture critical” and “functionally obsolete.” They measured, took photos, and revealed that the bridge had been struck numerous times by trucks in the past, most recently in October 2012.

They interviewed witnesses, including the unlucky souls who plunged into the river that evening. Thankfully all three of them survived.

Again, this is well and good. But here’s where I think investigators have dropped the ball.

One eyewitness who was rescued from the river told local news in Seattle that there was a second truck that appeared to be passing – or at least drawing even with – the oversized load as the vehicles arrived at the bridge. The witness said the oversized load appeared to be “pinned” over to the right, and therefore had no chance to clear the overhead bridge supports.

We must question why it took 12 days for investigators to put out the word about the second truck, even though eyewitnesses mentioned it on the first day.

State and federal investigators spent the first 12 days concentrating solely on the oversized load and hinting that they’ll throw the book at the company if they find anything. State officials have even said they’ll go after the company for financial damages if investigators find fault.

Meanwhile, the second truck was allowed to skate away and continue operating. Who is this person and who did he or she drive for? And who passes a marked oversized load on a narrow 60-year-old bridge?

Twelve days is an awfully long time to begin the search for a vehicle and its driver who is at the very least a key witness in the collapse of a critical piece of U.S. infrastructure that carried 71,000 vehicles per day.

State investigators announced June 4 that they were looking for an “unknown color semi with a white trailer.” Even with video, they have no other reliable information about the truck or driver.

What started as the straw that broke the camel’s back now involves a needle in a haystack.