Serious pier pressure

July 19, 2002

Hills just don’t pop up out of nowhere, but bridges can drop down with no warning.

Hills just don’t pop up out of nowhere, but bridges can drop down with no warning.

This is why knowledge of local terrain may save your life one day. Or you could just be lucky like Oklahoman Max Alley. He was driving on the I-40 bridge when it fell to its knees. His wife, Goldie, remembers him saying, “I don’t remember a hill being here,” before their truck spilled into the Arkansas River. Fortunately, both survived the roller-coaster drop. Max snapped his back and his wife suffered broken ribs. The stories of 14 others, however, were told in the obituaries.

So why am I asking for landscape memorization? Because, like a terrorist attack on U.S. soil, it could easily happen again. So, allow me to do my best high-ranking American official imitation and urge one and all to be on the lookout for any suspicious activity. And if you do see anything out of the ordinary, report it at once. I wish there were more I could say.

The cause of the I-40 devastation appears to be driver fatigue. Tugboat captain William Joe Dedmon reportedly “blacked out” and slammed two empty barges into pier No. 3 on the south end of the span. The National Transportation Safety Board did determine Dedmon got less than 10 hours’ sleep during the 411?2 hours preceding the incident. More on tired tugboating in a moment.

I was anxious to get a hold of anybody with the Oklahoma DOT. I have never passed over the I-40 bridge, and I don’t think I ever want to. But I needed a picture in my head. Tossing around blind accusations wasn’t going to cut it. There is nothing more powerful than a punch with eyes.

Upon hearing the report on CNN, I immediately thought the piers on this bridge were naked. ODOT Bridge Division Engineer Bob Rusch corrected me, but at the same time inserted my mouthpiece and motivated me to take an opinionated swing. Apparently, there is pier protection adjacent to the navigation channel (piers 4 and 5) on the north end of the bridge. Okay, so there is no protection of any kind for water traffic coming from the south. Well, perhaps this is an isolated case. Surely there must be other bridges, especially in the Mississippi and Ohio rivers, which have some kind of all-around buffer.

“I don’t think anybody in the country has upstream protection. That’s what the Coast Guard tells us,” said Rusch.

Technically, Oklahoma has the federal government’s approval on this matter. From what I understand leaving a column open to a barge hit is fine as long as it’s not on the downstream side of the navigation channel. ODOT has done what it’s been asked, which is very little.

Rusch’s response really shouldn’t have surprised me, but it did. I mean, this country has the obscene habit of doing the minimum when it comes to protecting its own citizens. It was, and still is, evident in our airports and on our borders. It’s evident in major cities. It’s evident on our waterways.

Every single pier should have some type of shield. This should have been a law from day one. Why? Because you never know when the worst will strike and innocent people perish. It really shouldn’t matter how active a particular passage is, either. Rusch has driven over the I-40 bridge several times and has seen maybe “one barge moving through.” But hours prior to the Oklahoma crash two tugs moving a combined 50 loaded barges passed the suspect piers.

Most disturbing in this preventable catastrophe is the lack of urgency to mend a system dressed in weak material. Oklahoma’s primary concern is to open the bridge to traffic as soon as possible. In fact, the prime contractor has an early finish incentive worth $6,000 per hour. A safety inspection of all bridges in the state is second in the line of importance. Oklahoma will conduct one, but only after cars can cross the Arkansas again.

More needs to be done to keep barge operators on top of their game, too. There is no enforcement in terms of the amount of work hours logged during a 24-hour span. Some verbiage does exist, but nobody is out there patrolling the waters. Pilots and truck drivers face a serious penalty if they exceed a certain load. Why are tugboat captains excluded from this list?

Max and Goldie deserve answers. We all do.