Elaine Thompson, Associated Press
MOUNT VERNON, Wash. — A truck hauling an oversized load of drilling equipment hit an overhead bridge girder on the major route between Seattle and Canada, sending a section of the interstate into the river below as the driver watched the structure collapse in his rearview mirror.
Two other vehicles plunged into the Skagit River, but all three occupants escaped with only minor injuries.
"He looked in the mirrors and it just dropped out of sight," Cynthia Scott, the wife of truck driver William Scott, said Friday from the couple's home near Spruce Grove, Alberta, just west of Edmonton. "I spoke to him seconds after it happened. He was just horrified."
The spectacular scene unfolded about 7 p.m. Thursday on the north section of the four-lane Interstate 5 bridge near Mount Vernon, about 60 miles north of Seattle and 40 miles south of the Canada border, and disrupted travel in both directions. Officials warned it could be weeks before things returned to normal along the heavily travelled corridor.
The Washington State Patrol said the truck driver works for Mullen Trucking in Alberta. The tractor-trailer was hauling a housing for drilling equipment southbound when the top right front corner of the load struck several trusses on the north end of the bridge, the patrol said.
Scott voluntarily gave a blood sample for an alcohol test and was not arrested. A top company official said the driver 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.
Initially, it wasn't clear if the bridge just gave way on its own. But at an overnight news conference, Washington State Patrol Chief John Batiste blamed it on the too-tall load. The vertical clearance from the roadway to the beam is 14.6 feet.
The truck made it off the bridge and Scott remained at the scene and cooperated with investigators. Two other vehicles went into the water about 25 feet below as the structure crumbled. Three people were rescued and were recovering Friday.
The trucking company said it received a state permit to carry its oversized load across the bridge. Scherbinski said the state Department of Transportation had approved of the company's plan to drive the equipment along I-5 to Vancouver, Wash.
He also said the company hired a local escort to help navigate the route. The driver was well-experienced with handling oversized loads, he said.
"This is what we do for a living. We pride ourselves in doing things the proper way," Scherbinski 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."
Dave Chesson, a state DOT spokesman, said there were no signs leading up to the bridge warning about its clearance height.
Gov. Jay Inslee — who issued an emergency proclamation for surrounding Skagit, Snohomish and Whatcom counties — said it will cost $15 million to repair the bridge. The federal government has already promised the state $1 million in emergency funding.
Inslee talked to U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood on Friday morning. LaHood is promising his full support to get Washington's main north-south roadway repaired as quickly as possible. National Transportation Safety Board officials planned to join state authorities at a Monday afternoon news briefing.
Traffic could be affected for some time. The bridge is used by an average of 71,000 vehicles a day, so the roadblock will cause a major disruption in trade and tourism between Seattle and Vancouver, British Columbia.
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