Archive for Monday, May 27, 2002

Divers find a fourth victim of bridge collapse in Oklahoma; up to 12 feared dead

May 27, 2002

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— Rescuers pulled a fourth body Monday from the swift and murky Arkansas River below an interstate bridge that collapsed and sent up to 12 vehicles plunging into the water.

A crane hoisted the victim's car from the water under the Interstate 40 bridge shortly after divers resumed the search about daylight, the Oklahoma Highway Patrol said.

"It's pretty well mangled," said Trooper Brandon Kopepasah.

The names of the four victims pulled from the river since Sunday have not been released. The Highway Patrol believes up to a dozen people were killed when a 500-section of the nearly 2,000-foot bridge collapsed after it was slammed by a barge just before 8 a.m. Sunday.

Lt. Chris West of the Highway Patrol said authorities believe there are up to eight vehicles still in the water, which is about 11 feet deep at the bridge. The river is swollen and running fast because of recent heavy rain, making recovery difficult, he said.

"The real challenge is going to be dealing with the water," West said.

Divers can barely see in the churning river and are feeling their way around twisted metal from the bridge to find vehicles. Terry Stephens, coordinator of the Highway Patrol's dive team, said mangled cars are piled on top of each other.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in Tulsa, which operates 11 dams and lakes in the area, was trying to reduce the flow of water on the Arkansas.

A 500-foot section of the nearly 2,000-foot bridge collapsed after the barge slammed into its piers Sunday, authorities said.

At least five people were taken to hospitals, including one man rescued by fishermen.

The fishermen, Norman Barton and Randy Graham, were competing in a bass tournament near the bridge when it collapsed. They alerted the tournament director to call for help, then rushed back to the bridge.

"I just watched one after another go off into space, just like you see on the action movies," Barton said.

They found James Bilyeau, a truck driver from Conway, Ark., and pulled him out of the water.

"He was in really bad shape. I don't know how he hung on like he did," Graham said. "I said, 'You're all right. We got you."'

Bilyeau, who remained in a hospital Monday with head injuries, telephoned Barton on Sunday night, and "he kept saying over and over, 'You saved my life,"' Barton said.

Rescue crews retrieved floating pieces of car seats, clothing and diapers. Huge slabs of concrete where the west side of the bridge gave way slumped in the water close to the river's edge.

The vehicles that plunged into the water included two tractor-trailer rigs. A horse trailer also went under, and divers pulled three dead horses from the water, West said.

Gov. Frank Keating, who flew to the area 100 miles east of Oklahoma City, said the towboat captain, Joe Dedmon, may have suffered a seizure at the wheel. The towboat was pushing two barges when the accident happened.

"The loss of life is something that is unbearable for all of us because these are people traveling on Memorial Day from all over the country," Keating said.

Joel Henderson, an attorney for Magnolia Marine Transport Co., of Vicksburg, Miss., which owns the towboat, said preliminary tests on Dedmon, 61, showed he had had not been using alcohol or drugs. Dedmon remained hospitalized Monday pending further tests.

"He's just terribly distraught and shook up about the incident," Henderson said.

The U.S. Coast Guard and FBI have spoken to Dedmon, and the National Transportation Safety Board was investigating.

The bridge, built in 1967, was last inspected in June 2001 and was found to be in "great shape," said Terri Angier, a spokeswoman for the Oklahoma Department of Transportation.

The loss of the bridge, about 35 miles west of the Arkansas state line, will force drivers to take a detour of up to 60 miles on two-lane roads.

Gary Ridley, director of the state Transportation Department, said the bridge likely will be repaired within six months. Until then, officials are concerned the smaller highways won't be able to handle the 20,000 vehicles that normally cross the I-40 bridge each day. They asked travelers to avoid eastern Oklahoma if possible.

Survivor Rodney Tidwell, a truck driver from Ripley, Miss., said he remembers going off the bridge but doesn't know how he got out of his truck and to the water's surface, where he was rescued by two boaters.

"I'm very fortunate," said Tidwell, 37. "I'm sorry about the other ones."

Bilyeau and another injured man, Max Alley of Stroud, Okla., were in stable condition early Monday at Muskogee Regional Medical Center. A third person was taken to Sequoyah Memorial Hospital with non-life-threatening injuries, while two others were treated and released.

Bilyeau's niece Reneta Crane said her uncle took a breath inside the cab after it hit the water and floated out.

"He's alive and he's doing good. He's a tough old guy," Crane said. "He said he doesn't want to go swimming ever again."

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