SKAGIT COUNTY, Wash. - It was shortly after 7 p.m. when Dan Sligh and his wife Sally were near the Interstate 5 bridge over the Skagit River. The semi-truck ahead on the far right seemed too wide for the bridge span, and Sligh told his wife so.
“We started slowing down, and about that same time another semi-truck came up on the left side,” he told KIRO 7. “It almost looked like he pinned that truck over to where he couldn’t swerve.”
“He hit the bridge about 3 or 4 feet wider than the actual bridge was, and there was a big puff of dust. I hit the brakes, (but with) the weight of the trailer and everything else we went right off the bridge as it collapsed into the Skagit River.”
Sligh scrambled to himself and his wife out of their gray pickup, then yelled to another man who climbed to the top of his orange car. Sligh said his Navy training helped him stay calm.
Rescuers raced to the scene about 60 miles north of Seattle, just past Mount Vernon and about 2 miles south of Burlington. The Skagit River was 46 degrees and roughly 18 feet deep where the bridge collapsed.
"We heard the terrible noise and thought, ‘What in the world was that?’” Rita Miller, an employee at the nearby Riverbend RV Park told KIRO 7. On the shore, Joshua Trythall watched as a sheriff’s boat and hovercraft came to rescue the Slighs and the younger man.
All were in stable condition late Thursday, though Sligh said he was worried about his wife’s head trauma and possible internal injuries. They had been heading south Thursday night for a Memorial Day camping trip with friends.
Police said there were no fatalities or other injuries, though divers were expected to check the water Friday morning as a precaution.
The white semi-truck that was being investigated by State Patrol troopers was marked with an oversize load sign and followed a pilot car southbound across the bridge.
There was damage to the container’s top right front corner – clearly from scraping something. However, it had surprisingly little damage overall. Investigators were measuring the truck shortly before 10 p.m., trying to determine its height and width.
The driver submitted to a blood draw, which is common in injury collision investigations. The results for the driver – an Alberta man in his early 40s – were not immediately available, though no tickets were given, a State Patrol spokesman said. The State Patrol is asking anyone who witnessed the accident to call (360) 654-1204.
State law requires oversize loads to have an escort vehicle with a vertical measuring pole any time the height of a vehicle is more than 14 feet, 6 inches. The height of the vehicle or bridge clearance at the damaged north end was not immediately known, though the escort truck pole appeared to be intact.
The bridge is 1,111 feet, and the section that collapsed was roughly a fourth. Transportation Secretary Lynn Peterson said the bridge was constructed in 1955 and was inspected twice last year. She didn’t have an estimate for when it would reopen, but said crews were working through the night on an emergency plan to move traffic.
Gov. Jay Inslee, who came to the scene with Peterson and State Patrol Chief John Batiste, said Washingtonians need to be patient and expect major delays. See map of alternate route here
The bridge is used by 70,000 vehicles daily, according to the most recent statistics available, and Inslee also promised help for locals dealing with the diverted traffic.
The State Transportation Secretary said the bridge had a 47 sufficiency rating. The scale goes from 0 to 100, with 0 being the worst. A bridge with a rating of 50 or less qualifies for replacement, according to the American Society of Civil Engineers.
A crowd of about 2,000 people gathered at the bridge before police moved them back shortly before 9 p.m. By then I-5 traffic in both directions was backed up for more than 10 miles.
Friday morning traffic was being directed off southbound I-5 at State Route 20 and northbound at College Way. Police told drivers to take Burlington Boulevard or State Route 9 to avoid the closure.
A crowd also gathered for a candlelight vigil late Thursday night. Some traveled from as far south as Everett to help, and staff from a nearby shop brought the first responders sandwiches and bagels.
“We want to thank everybody who had their hearts and prayers over the folks in the water,” Inslee said near the river bank. “This rescue was pretty amazing.”