Amsterdam, NY Bridge Collapses On Thruway, Apr 1987



The Washington Post.
A 200-foot section of the New York State Thruway, the state's busiest highway, collapsed into a rain-swollen stream Sunday, plunging a tractor-trailer and several cars into the swirling waters below, eyewitnesses said.
Turbulent currents caused by bad weather prevented divers from searching the Schoharie Creek after the bridge collapsed, and rescue workers were unable to establish how many people may have been killed or injured. The wreckage of the tractor-trailer cab and at least two cars were seen protruding from the water at one point, according to state police.
"It was impossible to try to save anybody. The waters were just too fast. There were 30-foot logs coming right down that river, slamming against the pillars of the bridge so hard that it made them shudder," said Fort Hunter Fire Commissioner DENNIS JABLONSKI, one of the first rescuers to arrive.
JABLONSKI said there was "no possible way" anybody could have survived the disaster. But state police said helicopter searches for survivors, which were suspended at nightfall, would resume at dawn today.
Gov. MERIO M. CUOMO, who flew to the scene by helicopter, told reporters that all other bridges in the state would be checked for safety. Federal highway officials estimate an average of 100 of the nation's half a million road bridges collapse every year, but most are along isolated rural roads and cause no injuries.
The most notorious recent incident involved the collapse of a 100-foot stretch of the Connecticut Turnpike in June 1983 because of design problems, killing three people. The driver of a pickup truck was killed last November after an 81-year-old bridge in Hanover, N. Y., that had been scheduled for replacement collapsed into a gorge.
A spokesman for the Montgomery County Sheriff's Department told a news conference three other bridges across the Schoharie Creek were closted Sunday morning following the worst floods to hit the area in more than three decades. But the sheriff, RONALD EMERY, had no authority to close the Thruway bridge, which is the responsibility of the New York State Thruway Authority.
An authority spokesman, ARTHUR D'ISABEL, called the 31-year-old concrete and steel bridge structurally sound, saying it had been inspected last April and found to be in "good condition." He added that extensive repairs to the substructure and roadway of the bridge had been carried out over the last five years.
The disaster occurred 40 miles northwest of Albany between exits 27 and 28 of Interstate 90, as the long stretch of Thruway between the New England border and the Niagara frontier is known. Officials said 15,000 vehicles cross the 520-foot long bridge on a typical Sunday.
Maj. EDWARD VANDERWALL of the New York State Police told reporters the Thruway was immediately sealed off after the west-bound lane of the four-lane bridge collapsed at 10:48 a. m. Sunday following the crumbling of supporting concrete pilings The east bound lane collapse4d half an hour later, and eventually 1,000 feet of highway fell away.
BILL WELLER, an assistant fire chief who witnessed the collapse from a nearby bridge, was quoted by colleagues as saying the accident resembled "a scene from the movies when a vehicle jumps off a canyon." He said he saw "two or three automobiles" dropping from the bridge.
There were conflicting reports about the number of cars on the bridge at the time of the collapse, with some eyewitnesses saying as many as five vehicles could have fallen into the water. Firefighters reported seeing the exhaust pipe of the trailer, the gasoline tank and tires of a small car, and part of a Cadillac with out-of-state registration plates sticking out of the water.
The rushing waters were caused by heavy rains that forced hundreds of people across the Northeast to evacuate their homes. Thousands more were left without electricity as snow, wind, and rain brought down power lines.
At Firchburg, Mass., a two-lane bridge collapsed into the Nashua River, when its supports washed away. Civil defense officials said three people escaped without injuries after their car plunged into the river.
Near the Schoharie bridge on the Thruway, firefighters began evacuating inhabitants from nearby billaged by raft Sunday morning. Local residents reported spotting a wide range of debris -- including refrigerators, picnic tables and parts of a cabin -- floating down the Schoharie Creek which, in normal times, is shallow enough to wade.
"We have yearly floodings of the creek -- but this year is a lot worse," said JASON DOWNING of the Fort Hunter Fire Department.
Traffic between Amsterdam and Fultonville on the Thruway was rerouted along a 15-mile detour. Highway officials said a prolonged closure of the Thruway will cause considerable disruption to transportation across the state.
The Thruway was constructed in the mid-1950s with funds raised by the authority, a quasi-autonomous body not directly responsible to the governor. Most of the cost of maintaining the highway has come from state funds and toll fees, although the federal government provides $35 million a year under an agreement reached in 1982, according to authority officials.
The Federal Highway Administration estimated in 1982 that over 120,000 of the nation's bridges were "structurally deficient." Federal standards call for bridge inspections every five years, but responsibility for enforcing the legislation rests with the states.
VANDERWALL told reporters that, up until Sunday's collapse, the New York State Thruway had been "one of the safest roads in the country in terms of accident statistics and fatalities."
Sen. DANIEL P. MOYNIHAN, D-N.Y., indicated he would have a Senate committee begin an investigation this week of the bridge collapse.

The Post-Standard Syracuse New York 1987-04-06