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Divers find 3 victims from bridge collapse

The collapsed section of I-40 in Oklahoma.
The collapsed section of I-40 in Oklahoma.  

WEBBERS FALLS, Oklahoma (CNN) -- Divers recovered the bodies of three victims Sunday from the Arkansas River, where a 600-foot section of an Interstate 40 bridge collapsed after being hit by a barge.

The two females and one male were in vehicles that had been traveling on the bridge when it was struck, causing about a dozen cars and trucks to plunge 60 feet into the water below.

Divers also recovered three horses that had been riding in a trailer, said Lt. Chris West of the Oklahoma Department of Public Safety.

Fishermen who witnessed the Sunday morning collapse reported seeing at least nine passenger vehicles and tractor-trailers plunge into the river.

Five people were taken to the hospital, including the barge captain, who apparently blacked out behind the wheel, said Joel Henderson, a representative of Magnolia Marine, which owned the barge. Preliminary drug tests on the captain came back negative, he said, and doctors were still determining why he passed out.

Oklahoma authorities have set up a family assistance center in Webbers Falls. The number is 918- 464-2920. 
The Oklahoma Department of Transportation is asking highway travelers to avoid travel in eastern Oklahoma. Those who must travel in the region are asked to use State Highway 9 or U.S. Highway 64. 
A barge struck a bridge in eastern Oklahoma on Sunday morning, collapsing a 600-foot section and dropping vehicles 62 feet to the Arkansas River (May 26)

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The captain was identified as Joe Dedmon of Florence, Mississippi. Henderson said he has been a boat pilot for 30 years and was very familiar with the stretch of river where the accident happened. Dedmon began his workday at 5:30 a.m. (6:30 a.m. ET) Sunday.

"It appeared to be just one of those awful accidents -- terrible that it occurred on Memorial Day (weekend)," said Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating.

Four others who were traveling on the bridge at the time were also hospitalized for their injuries, said West.

'I couldn't believe it was actually happening'

The bridge collapsed around 7:30 a.m. when one of two barges going north on the river struck a pylon, Keating said. The crash led cars and trucks to plunge some 60 feet into the river.

Oklahoma Highway Patrol trooper Jason Hanlon arrived a few minutes after the collapse and saw the front wheels of an 18-wheeler hanging over the edge of the pavement and two trucks and two cars in the water.

"I saw them pull one person out of the water," Hanlon said. "I couldn't believe it was actually happening here." (Full story)

Ched Wetz of the Muskogee Medical Center said one patient treated for facial injuries described what happened to him.

"He told me he was driving along and the next thing he remembers he was in the water," Wetz said. "He doesn't remember how he got out. That's all he remembers."

Aerial views of the bridge showed four lanes of highway near the river bank leading at a 45-degree angle into the water. Part of the roadway angled downward onto the barges, which were holding them up.

Repair will take months

I-40 is the major east-west route through Oklahoma, with an estimated 20,000 vehicles crossing the bridge daily, Keating said. The bridge is about 40 miles from the border with Arkansas.

Invistigators look over a car recovered from the river after the collapse.
Invistigators look over a car recovered from the river after the collapse.  

It was closed in both directions following the collapse. Vehicles were backed up for miles on either side of the Arkansas River, and the small towns in the area were overwhelmed with detour traffic.

"It's certainly a major thoroughfare across the United States, and to have it disrupted is not good news for commerce," said Keating.

One or two barges travel that section of the river each day, said Bruce Taylor, the chief engineer for the state's department of transportation.

The accident knocked out four spans, or about 600 feet, of the 1,988-foot bridge, Taylor said. Three piers were also lost, he said.

Structural damage was so severe that it ripped apart the concrete seams at the river's banks.

Dana Tracy, the district fire chief for Sequoyah County, estimated the bridge would take a year to fix, but Keating said he hoped the roadway would be open again within six months.

"This is not in the books," Tracy said. "This is not an everyday scenario."

River littered with shredded metal

A spokesman said the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was working to reduce flow in the river to aid in the recovery effort.

Josef Blann, a volunteer diver with the Marine Corps Reserves, said the river was now littered with shredded metal and concrete.

"It's very murky," he added. "Visibility is face in the hand; you can't see nothing. It's pretty bad. It's pretty sickening. There's a lot of people in the water, there's debris, baby diapers and car seats up and down this side of the embankment."

Heavy rain was falling at the time of the bridge's collapse, but subsided soon afterward, said Rebecca Smith, a spokeswoman for Muskogee County Emergency Medical Services.

The U.S. Coast Guard, the National Transportation Safety Board, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency were offering their help, Keating said.




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