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Bridge over I-70 collapses; section of highway closed

| Wednesday, Dec. 28, 2005

SOUTH STRABANE TOWNSHIP -...A concrete bridge beam collapsed Tuesday evening onto Interstate 70, closing a 3.5-mile section of the highway in both directions and snarling traffic along one of the most heavily traveled truck routes in Pennsylvania.

Authorities said a 50-foot, 125-ton section of precast concrete supporting the deck of Lakeview Drive bridge fell onto the eastbound lanes of the interstate, which carries an estimated 60,000 vehicles in an average day. The collapse occurred a couple hundred yards east of the I-70 south junction with Interstate 79.

A woman and her young daughter suffered minor injuries when their minivan slid into the box beam moments after it fell, state police Cpl. Samuel Grande said. A little boy in the van was unhurt.

A couple traveling beneath the overpass as the barrier fell were unhurt when debris struck the roof and hood of their vehicle, cracking the windshield.

"It's amazing we didn't have a 10- to 30-car pile-up. ... It could have been a catastrophic occurrence," said Jeff Breen, PennDOT's maintenance manager in Washington County.

Breen said inspectors planned to examine the bridge for at least five hours under diesel-powered halogen lights that were brought to the scene. The highway was not expected to reopen until today at the earliest, but could remain closed for several days if the bridge has to be demolished, he said. A 50-foot crane would be required to remove the collapsed section.

Interstate 70, which connects with I-79 in Washington, Pa., is the most direct east-west route between Columbus, Ohio, and New Stanton. Traffic was detoured onto routes 40, 519 and 136.

Despite the detour on Route 136, traffic in Carroll Township, Monongahela and Fallowfield was moving smoothly.

The injured woman, Vickie Scott Barber, 45, of Cincinnati, was driving to visit family in Philadelphia. She was treated at Washington Hospital and released.

Her 6-year-old daughter, who was in the passenger seat, suffered leg injuries and was flown to Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh, where she was in good condition last night, a hospital spokeswoman said.

Barber's 22-month-old son was uninjured, state police said.

Tina Kilgore, 36, of Mt. Washington, was traveling from Columbus with her two children and a friend when the barrier fell in front of them. They ran to Barber's van after it struck the fallen beam.

"It was dark and I saw everyone in front of us braking. Then all of a sudden all I saw was dust," said Kilgore, whose car stopped 20 feet from the debris.

"We were still under part of it at that point, so we backed up and moved away because we didn't know if the whole bridge was going to come down. ... Then it was a matter of seeing if the people in front of us were alive."

Vincent Carr, 31, of Washington, returning from a shopping trip with his girlfriend, Neily Rosko, 28, of Eighty-Four, slammed on the brakes as debris hit their car. The couple first thought snow had fallen from the bridge or that someone had thrown something. They were able to stop safely and looked back in disbelief.

"It all happened really quick," Carr said. "It could have been a lot worse. One or two seconds' difference, and we would have been crushed. ... I don't want to think about how close of a call it was."

The collapsed beam, one of eight precast deck supports, fell in a V shape with the point striking the interstate.

PennDOT safety officer Jay Ofsanik said state officials were waiting this morning for two inspectors from Harrisburg to arrive on the scene.

The inspectors are expected to determine if the damaged structure can be removed or if additional work is needed.

Ofsanik said state police were keeping traffic moving smoothly this morning.

PennDOT officials said it was too early to determine what caused the collapse, but structural deterioration was a possibility. PennDOT is required to inspect every bridge at least once every two years, Breen said.

Ofsanik said the Lakeview Drive bridge is on a list of bridges that undergo a visual inspection every six months. The bridge last had a complete inspection in March 2004 and a visual inspection in August, he said.

"It looks like it broke in the middle," PennDOT foreman Bob Puskas said. "I've been here 23 years, and I've never seen anything like it."

Puskas said it is PennDOT's responsibility to maintain the bridge, which carries Lakeview Drive over the interstate. South Strabane maintains the road that winds through a wooded, sparsely populated section of the township.

Although the collapse happened in the eastbound lanes, the interstate's westbound lanes also were closed. Bridge inspectors would determine when it was safe to reopen the road, authorities said. If the bridge has to be demolished, PennDOT would hire a contractor under an emergency contract and the work could take two to three days, Breen said.

Andy Sizemore, of West Virginia, a truck driver for Pitt-Ohio Express, stopped at a truck stop in Eighty-Four last night. He travels I-70 daily.

"It's scary knowing I travel across a lot of these bridges in Pennsylvania every day," Sizemore said.

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