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URGENT Bridge Collapses; Cars, Tractor-Trailer in Water

April 6, 1987

AMSTERDAM, N.Y. (AP) _ An interstate highway bridge over a rain-swollen creek collapsed Sunday, sending at least three cars and a tractor-trailer plunging about 80 feet into swirling, muddy water.

It was not immediately known how many people might have been killed or hurt when the four-lane span on the New York State Thruway collapsed shortly before 11 a.m., said state police Troop T Commander Edward Vanderwall.

More than 50 rescue workers rushed to the scene, but could not reach the vehicles because of the ″boiling water″ of the Schoharie Creek, said Thruway Authority spokesman Arthur D’Isabel.

″There is no possibility of rescue,″ said Vanderwall, whose unit patrols the Thruway, part of Interstate 90. ″We still are not sure who or what is in there. ... The water is just too high, too fast and too dirty.″

Only two of four sets of supporting concrete pylons for the 31-year-old bridge remained intact. One pillar of one set stood at midstream.

An estimated 350 to 400 feet of the road deck - nearly the entire length spanning the river - fell into the water.

Rescuers located the cab of the tractor-trailer near the collapsed bridge, but were unable to reach any occupants, said Dennis Jablonsky, a volunteer with the volunteer fire department in Fort Hunter, about two miles downstream.

″We can’t do a thing,″ Jablonsky said. ″There are trees coming down the creek two feet wide and 30-40 feet long, some longer. Refrigerators, a picnic table, benches, all kinds of debris. Whatever that water can grab on its way, it’s taken.″

A white car that looked like a Cadillac was wedged against trees in the middle of the river, but nobody could reach it, either, Jablonsky said. It later had disappeared, he said.

Both vehicles were spotted about one-quarter mile downstream, according to Vanderwall. The rear end of the white car and a pair of smokestacks believed to extend from the cab of the tractor-trailer were visible. State police said there were no signs of bodies or survivors.

Bits of the collapsed bridge also could be seen in the water.

Rescue workers planned to spend the night monitoring the scene with floodlights and bring in helicopters at sunrise.

″I heard this noise, I looked up and the whole bridge was falling,″ said William Weller of Fort Hunter, who saw the collapse from a nearby bridge. ″There was a tractor-trailer on it and a few other cars.″

Other witnesses said between three and five cars and the tractor-trailer fell into the creek when the concrete and steel girder bridge collapsed.

″It’s all gone,″ Associated Press photographer James McKnight said after flying over the site just west of Amsterdam, about 34 miles northwest of Albany, an area flooded by heavy rain over the past two days.

John Frainier, a thruway spokesman, said the flooding played a role in the collapse, but Robert Donnaruma, deputy chief engineer for the Thruway Authority, said the cause had not been determined.

Vanderwall said the westbound span of the four-lane bridge collapsed at 10:48 a.m. and that the two-lane eastbound section immediately began to sag and went down about 15 minutes later. Another 15 minutes later another piece of the bridge collapsed, said Vanderwall.

New York Gov. Mario Cuomo, who went by helicopter to the scene, said all similar bridges in the state would be checked for safety.

Vanderwall said that shortly before the collapse, workers had checked the bridge and had found it to be safe. However, D’Isabel said that no Thruway employees had conducted such an inspection.

Other bridges in the area had been closed Sunday because of flooding on the Schoharie, officials said, but the thruway bridge had remained open in the past when others were closed by flooding.

Alexander Levine, executive director of the Thruway Authority, said that about two years ago extensive rehabilitation was been done on the bridge, including the installation of a new deck and several supporting steel cross members.

The bridge was declared safe following an inspection of that work, Levine and Donnaruma said.

The collapse forced authorities to close about 25 miles of the highway between Schenectady, east of Amsterdam, and Fultonville. Traffic was detoured around the area on local roads.

The highway runs from the New York City area north to Albany, then west to the Buffalo area.

The creek’s waters hit their peak about 2 a.m. Sunday, and local officials said it had crested about 5 feet above flood stage.

State Police Capt. Gerald Darby said he arrived at the scene shortly after the collapse and that he and other law enforcement officials were able to keep other vehicles from driving into the abyss. ″We’re very lucky. It could have been a lot worse,″ said State Police Lt. Michael Wright. ″Troopers were there within five or 10 minutes.″

Vanderwall said divers had been stationed on each side of the creek and that three helicopters were being used to help in the search.

″There’s nothing visible in this rapid, dark water,″ said Vaderwall, however.

Some rescue workers held out hope that some people might have been trapped inside their vehicles and might have been able to survive because of trapped airpockets.

″God works in strange ways so we just hope for the best,″ said Trooper Robert Armet.

Sunday’s was at least the second fatal collapse of an interstate highway bridge in recent years. A 100-foot section of a bridge carrying Interstate 95 over the Mianus River in Connecticut collapsed in 1983, sending vehicles plunging 70 feet into a river and killing three people and injuring three seriously.

Federal authorities determined the collapse was caused when a pin in an assembly supporting the bridge slipped out of position.