Archive for Tuesday, May 28, 2002

Bridge collapse death toll rises

May 28, 2002

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— Four bodies were recovered Monday from the underwater tangle and concrete where a barge collapsed a section of a bridge, sending cars plummeting into the Arkansas River. The recovery brought the number of confirmed dead to seven.

A thunderstorm forced divers to stop searching after they found one body Monday, but crews used sonar to locate vehicles in the water with three bodies inside. They used large cranes with claws to bring them up.

The bodies of four women and three men were recovered, and the search was to resume today. At least five people escaped with injuries when a 500-foot section of the nearly 2,000-foot bridge was sheared off.

The accident occurred when Joe Dedmon, the 61-year-old pilot of a towboat pushing two barges side-by-side, apparently blacked out at the helm, said Joel Henderson, a spokesman for Magnolia Marine Transport Co., which owns the boat.

Dedmon appears to have passed out for about two minutes and was unable to steer the barges through the river channel under the bridge, Henderson said. Nobody was on hand to take the helm from him.

Preliminary tests on the captain showed he had not been using alcohol or drugs. Dedmon regained consciousness after the collision but remained hospitalized Monday pending further tests.

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

Survivor Goldie Alley was driving across the bridge with her husband, Max, when their car went into the water. She said she had traveled over the bridge hundreds of times with her church singing group.

"When my husband got to the edge he said, 'I don't remember a hill being here,' and about that time we was in the air," she told KWTV in Oklahoma City.

Max Alley suffered a broken back and Goldie Alley had broken ribs.

Kay Blanford of Southerland Springs, Tex., feared two of her friends went off the bridge while hauling a trailer loaded with four race horses. Rescuers hadn't found her friends but pulled three dead horses out of the river. Blanford was following in another car but got caught in a traffic jam.

"I've been trying to call them on the cell phone and they still haven't answered," Blanford said.

The barge was moving upstream and about 300 feet outside the regular navigation channel when the accident happened, a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers spokesman said.

Huge rock-filled bumpers protect bridge supports near the navigation channel from boats or debris moving downstream, but the columns are not protected from vessels moving upstream, said Dennis Johnson, the corps' area manager. He said it was unusual for a barge to hit a bridge while moving upstream outside the channel.

"This is just one of those things," Johnson said. "I don't know how you could have prevented it."

The empty, 490-foot barge, longer than a football field, was going about 5 mph.

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