Bridge collapse dumps cars in river in Washington

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A TRUCK that crashed into a bridge in Washington state may have caused it to collapse, sending vehicles into the freezing river below, officials said.

The major link between the United States and Canadian sides of the Pacific Northwest region, on the road from Seattle to Vancouver, was severed on Thursday night after the bridge collapsed, dumping a handful of vehicles and people into a river, police said.

A portion of the Interstate 5 bridge is submerged after it collapsed into the Skagit River. Picture: AP

A portion of the Interstate 5 bridge is submerged after it collapsed into the Skagit River. Picture: AP

Three people were rescued from the river. Two of them were being treated in hospital for hypothermia yesterday.

State patrol chief John Batiste said a truck and trailer had struck the bridge just before part of it collapsed.

“The size of the load he was carrying appeared to create a problem, causing him to strike the bridge,” Mr Batiste said.

The chief said investigators were talking to the driver and inspecting the truck.

Television images showed onlookers gathered on the bank of the Skagit River, watching the rescue attempts under the fallen bridge section.

“The currents of the river are really rough. It’s cold,” said Barbara Williams, who lives nearby.

The incident was reminiscent of the August 2007 collapse of a bridge in Minneapolis, Minnesota, that killed 13 people and injured 145 when it buckled and fell into the Mississippi River during rush-hour.

The latest collapse came at the start of one of the busiest holiday weekends of the year in the US, Memorial Day weekend.

Dan Sligh and his wife were in their pick-up truck on the bridge on Thursday, on a camping trip, when the bridge disappeared in a “big puff of dust”.

“I hit the brakes and we went off,” Mr Sligh said, adding he “saw the water approaching … you hold on as tight as you can”.

Mr Sligh, his wife, and another man in another vehicle were dumped into the chilly waters of the Skagit. They were injured, but authorities said it appeared no-one was killed.

“We don’t think anyone else went into the water,” said Marcus Deyerin, a spokesman for the Northwest Washington Incident Management Team. “At this point, we’re optimistic.”

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 was about 25 feet (eight metres) above the water.

Mr Deyerin said it appeared that two vehicles – a car and the pick-up with trailer attached – fell into the river. He said the water depth was about 11 feet, and the vehicles half-visible in the water were likely to have been resting on portions of the collapsed bridge.

Crowds of people lined the river to watch the scene unfold.

“It’s not something you see every day,” said Jimmy O’Connor, a businessman who was driving on another bridge parallel to the one that collapsed. “People were starting to crawl out of their cars.”

The bridge was not classified as structurally deficient, but a Federal Highway Administration database listed it as being “functionally obsolete” – a category meaning that the design is outdated,.

Lawmakers in the state are in the midst of a debate on proposed multi-billion dollar transportation funding package.