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Oklahoma Governor Frank Keating Addresses Reporters

Aired May 26, 2002 - 17:23   ET


FREDRICKA WHITFIELD, CNN ANCHOR: We're going to take it over to Oklahoma, where Governor Frank Keating is now talking about recovery efforts there after a barge crashes into a bridge, sending several travelers to the death in the Arkansas river.

GOV. FRANK KEATING (R), OKLAHOMA: We have no confirmation of any fatalities, although that people at the bridge tell me they have seen people in the cars in the water. And those people, unfortunately, have not survived. We don't know the numbers. Obviously, we will over the course of the next number of hours.

I have talked this morning to Joe Allbaugh, who is the head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Joe pledged whatever resources or assistance that the FEMA organization would be able to provide us would be provided. We -- at this juncture, the only thing that has been requested, only things that have been requested (UNINTELLIGIBLE) are two-way radios and lights for this evening. We're going to have to, of course, do a lot of work down at the cite this evening. And our own civil emergency management people here in Oklahoma will provide those resources.

There are series of law enforcement agents here. Obviously, because of the events of September 11, the FBI is here. This does not at all appear to be anything more than one of those tragic human accidents. The loss of life is something that is unbearable for all of us, because these are people traveling on Memorial Day from all over our country. We hope to have those numbers as soon as possible. It is a very sad day for us.

The number of people taken to hospital are about four so far. That does not include, by the way, the barge captain. Obviously, there is some question about what happened to have a barge hit a bridge above them, as occurred here. Apparently, he suffered a seizure or something behind the wheel, because the captain was in charge of the barge when the accident occurred.

As I said, no estimates yet of a number of fatalities, though there is no question there will be. Only four people so far have been taken to hospitals in the region. It appeared to be just one of those awful accidents, terrible that it occurred on Memorial Day, and our prayers are for the families involved.

I might say, what we did do at the site is the Salvation Army chaplain brought us all together, we held hands, about 50 of us, and we said a prayer for those who were going into the water to try to find victims, and also for those who are in the water. A very sad day for this Memorial Day weekend here in Oklahoma.

I will be happy to answer any questions.


KEATING: We don't know. That's the only report that we have, and it may well be totally apocryphal, but the captain was in the bridge, he was behind the wheel at the time of the accident. The visibility appeared to be decent. It was not raining. So obviously something happened to him behind the wheel, but we do not know exactly what. That will be determined. He is at the hospital.

Anybody know what hospital he's at?

Muskogee Regional.

Congressman Brad Carson is here. By the way, I might say that we talked here just a few minutes ago. Come here, Brad, why don't you come on up. And the congressman has fledged whatever federal assistance is needed. I might say that the word that I had from the engineers on site is we're going to try to get this -- these roadways up and running again within the next six months, but this is a major east-west artery, and as you can see, I know from your own photography that this both -- I mean, both eastbound and westbound roads are in the water. So, it is going to take a while.

You want to say something about that, congressman?

REP. BRAD CARSON (D), OKLAHOMA: No, but this is obviously a sad day for Oklahoma and eastern Oklahoma especially. What we're most concerned today are those people who lost their lives and those people who have been injured. Over the next few weeks and months, we'll begin that process of rebuilding a major bridge here on the major artery of commerce and people's livelihood who go into Arkansas and come from Arkansas. That project will take millions of dollars, obviously, and we look forward to working with the state government.

We've already been in contact with people in Washington, D.C., that emergency appropriations, to make sure those dollars do come back here when we can begin the rebuilding process, and get the navigation channel, which is so important to commerce in Oklahoma and for the country as well, up and running in the next few days, we hope, as well.

KEATING: I might say something that the word from people there -- and again, you don't -- you have an eyewitness report of how many cars went in the water. It's probably seven to nine cars and semitrailers in the water. There could be more, it could be fewer, but again, the number of people in those cars, we don't know.

It is a holiday weekend. There's some report of children. We hope not. But obviously, this is a holiday weekend. That's the best we know, seven to nine cars in the water.


KEATING: Pardon me?

QUESTION: We have heard (UNINTELLIGIBLE) an unconfirmed report that the driver -- or the operator may have passed out. Can you help us understand, has he said something, or does he have kind of a blackout period, he doesn't remember, or -- what is the origin?

KEATING: Well, one of the fire officials at the scene talked to one of the mates on the tug, and said that that appears to be what occurred, that there was a seizure, the captain blacked out and hit the bridge. But again, we don't know until he is interviewed. He in the hospital right now, being attended to.


KEATING: I don't know. Anybody have a report on the condition of the captain?

I don't think we have -- do we -- Terry (ph), condition of the captain? No, we don't. We'll get that to you as soon as we know anything, but he is in the hospital, and obviously we'll have better information later.

QUESTION: How many crew were on that barge?

KEATING: I don't know. Anybody -- I don't know.

QUESTION: Governor, we heard a report that there was a fishing tournament going, and fishermen actually alerted rescuers and actually assisted with the rescue?

KEATING: Well, people in this state like to fish. I don't know about a tournament, but there were a lot of -- there was a tournament, OK. There were a number of fishermen down there that saw it happened. And they said that, you know, the tug just veered right into the piling, and then here came the road. And it was their estimate that seven to nine cars and trucks went into the water.

But again, that's just an estimate.



QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) that you know of?

KEATING: What, no -- you mean, just the Interstate 40 -- I mean, that structure on Interstate 40 apparently hit it full-blown, right? You know, plowed right into it.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) military personnel (OFF-MIKE)

KEATING: I haven't heard anything about that. You mean as victims? No, not to my knowledge.

QUESTION: Governor, would you consider this being an interstate, presumably taken out, as a national disaster? (OFF-MIKE)

KEATING: Well, this is a 20,000-vehicle-a-day road, which is obviously not a sparsely populated road, and it is going to cause a lot of inconvenience, but with the congressman, self and others, we'll try to get it up as quickly as can be, but it's certainly, you know, a major thoroughfare across the United States, and to have it disrupted is not good news for commerce.


KEATING: Of the what?

QUESTION: Of the soonest, most optimistic timetable?

KEATING: Yeah, I spoke to the engineer for this area. He -- his plan is to have it up and rolling. And again, our federal partners are going to be very helpful to make that happen, but up and rolling well within six months. But again, it's a major collapse on a major road. So it is going to take a while.


KEATING: Pardon me?


KEATING: Well, right now, the only, as I think you've probably seen from helicopter or aircraft video, the road is in the -- I mean, the highway both east and west are in the river. Two barges are wrapped around the pilings. The tug itself is pulled off and is to the south. There are a number of law enforcement and rescue-type vessels in the water. There is what appears to be a Winnebago or a truck of some sort, part of it, sticking -- I mean, just below the surface.

The automobiles themselves you can't see. But the report that I've had about the number of cars and the number of potential fatalities people seen in the cars was from people who actually got in the water to see it. But it's obviously murky and it's fast-moving. The crew, by the way, on that tug is between six and eight people.

QUESTION: How deep are they saying that it is?

KEATING: Eleven feet. At least that was the information given to me. Any other...


KEATING: No, no. Where the accident took place. They told me, 11 feet. Is that -- OK.

QUESTION: Eleven feet of depth of water?


QUESTION: How will an investigation proceed from here (OFF-MIKE) KEATING: Well, I mean, obviously, the number one thing to do now is to extract the victims, and there are a multitude of folks involved. The sheriff's department from the area, the Oklahoma Highway Patrol. Right, I mean, there is just a multitude of folks. And after that, I don't know if anybody wants to tell me in an accident like this on a navigable waterway who, if anybody, has the lead in the investigation, I don't know.

CARSON: They will have it.

KEATING: OK, why don't you, you know.

CARSON: I spoke with the National Transportation Safety Board, and they are en route and they will have a crew here by 6:00 or 7:00 this evening, coming from Dallas, coming from Memphis, coming from Washington, D.C. as well, and we presume that they will be the lead agency, as they would be for any other kind of disaster of this magnitude.


KEATING: Well, they're certainly participating. That's what the congressman tells me, that the National Transportation Safety Board would have the lead. I might say, I have already approved a disaster declaration to the federal emergency help request, and of course we'll be working together to clean it up and try to make these lives whole.

Anything else?

QUESTION: How long will it take to stabilize the bridge (UNINTELLIGIBLE).

KEATING: Well, right now there's a Department of Transportation team on a snorkel that are examining the pylons to make that decision. I don't know if they'd made any decisions yet. Probably not. But there's -- about the stabilization of the east side of the bridge, there's a team of engineers on it now, but I don't think they've made a decision yet.

Anybody -- oh, here we go.

BRUCE TAYLOR, CHIEF ENGINEER, OKLAHOMA DEPT. OF TRANSPORTATION: We're still looking at the bridge with a snooper truck up on top, looking for damage underneath on the areas that weren't affected by the impact. Part of it is still leaning down in the water. Pardon me. I'm Bruce Taylor, chief engineer for Oklahoma DOT. And we think that's stabilized for the time being. That's laying on top of the two barges, and they put a cable around the barge and hooked it to a (UNINTELLIGIBLE) that was out in the water to try to ensure that it didn't move any.

QUESTION: How far is the drop from the bridge into the water?

TAYLOR: The normal clearance is about 60 feet from the water level to the bottom of the bridge.

QUESTION: Do you know how long those barges are? We've been trying to guesstimate (UNINTELLIGIBLE).

TAYLOR: I'm not familiar with the size. I have a guy here from -- how long are the barges, the size of the barges?


DENNIS JOHNSON, U.S. ARMY CORPS OF ENGINEERS: I'm Dennis Johnson with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. What was the question?

QUESTION: Your name?

JOHNSON: Dennis Johnson, with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

QUESTION: How big are the barges?

JOHNSON: Well, these are petroleum barges, and I believe they're 495 by 54-foot wide. Yes.

QUESTION: Four hundred ninety-five feet long?



JOHNSON: Two, yes.

QUESTION: Fifty feet wide, is that what you said?

JOHNSON: Fifty-four.

QUESTION: Fifty-four. And were they -- have they just unloaded (UNINTELLIGIBLE) or were they about to unload it?

JOHNSON: They were empty, heading north to pick up a load.

QUESTION: Where were they heading to?

JOHNSON: I'm not really for sure. Probably the port of Katusa (ph), that would be my guess.

QUESTION: How long is the span of the bridge, and how much of that (UNINTELLIGIBLE)?

JOHNSON: Do you have it?

TAYLOR: The total bridge length is 1,988 feet. We lost four spans. I'm going to guess that it's probably about, maybe, 600 feet of the bridge, somewhere in that range.


TAYLOR: Two piers in the water were destroyed, and there's one on the bank that has been tilted toward the river. So there's three piers that are gone now.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) TAYLOR: I don't have any idea, ma'am.


TAYLOR: Everything...

KEATING: Let me do this if I can to parse this. The rescue and recovery operation is under the jurisdiction of the Oklahoma Department of Public Safety, the Oklahoma Highway Patrol, and of course the investigation of what happened is the National Transportation Safety Board. So let me ask Captain John Harris, captain, let Captain John Harris of the Oklahoma Highway Patrol answer the questions about the rescue and recovery effort itself. OK.

CAPT. JOHN HARRIS, OKLAHOMA HIGHWAY PATROL: Thank you. I'd just like to say that the Department of Public Safety is the lead agency. We're supporting, of course, the other agencies that are here, the Muskogee County sheriff is here, and others that are helping in this tremendous effort of recovery.

But we are taking the lead at this time.


HARRIS: I have some new information. The barge is now has been secured. Our patrol divers are ready to enter the water probably within 15 minutes, and they will finish checking out a very critical area around the front of the barges. So we hope to have that completed within an hour. Then, perhaps, we can start a recovery of the vehicles and such.


HARRIS: That's correct. It's a very, very -- very hazardous situation with the bridge, perhaps falling, at any movement of the barge. So it's taking a considerable amount of time to secure that barge, but it has been done.

QUESTION: How are they securing it?

HARRIS: With cables, using massive steel cables. We're using existing tug boats, some expansions that have been put into the river bed, and we're also using the existing structures that are still good. They're tying around that.


HARRIS: I'm afraid we're in the recovery phase, but it's certainly we have hope for air pockets. We do. We're being as expedient as we can. Thank you.

KEATING: Anything else? OK, thanks. One last question.


KEATING: Does the corps want to answer this one? The question is, how is this going to affect river traffic?

JOHNSON: The river, at this time, is closed. The U.S. Coast Guard has the jurisdiction over the river as far the navigation interests, and they at this time have it closed, and it will remain closed until such time as they deem it safe to reopen.

QUESTION: So how will the traffic be re-routed? Is there a plan established for that yet?

JOHNSON: The traffic cannot be re-routed. This is a single lane, if you will, going up and coming down. And there's no way to re-route it.

QUESTION: One last question. Was the river (OFF-MIKE)

JOHNSON: No. The river was about normal. We were flowing in the neighborhood of 50,000 cubic foot per second out of the Webbers Falls. Not a large flow. It's normal.


JOHNSON: This is very rare, as far as I'm concerned.


QUESTION: How many barges go through a day?

JOHNSON: We do approximately four million tons a year on this end of the river.


JOHNSON: It's hard to say, because they'll carry different tonnages, but there will be at least one go through every day, maybe two, and...

QUESTION: Do you know what time this happened?

JOHNSON: We have logged in our log book at lock and dam -- the lock operator first got word of this about 7:45 this morning, and he heard it on the radio. The communications, the Corps of Engineers communications.

KEATING: If there's a question about re-routing, particularly for the local media -- comments about -- the chief here will answer those about where all the traffic is going to be? Do you have any question about that?

QUESTION: They've closed the entire river, all commerce is shut down?

JOHNSON: They will close anything above this particular point.


JOHNSON: At the time of the impact, they were out of the channel.

QUESTION: What was the estimate (UNINTELLIGIBLE).

JOHNSON: I'm guessing that probably the center line of the navigation channel is 300 foot or so east of where the impact occurred.

QUESTION: The speed, again, of that barge?

JOHNSON: I don't know. Maybe five mile-per-hour.


JOHNSON: Currently, we're trying to minimize flows as much as we can. We're trying to minimize the flow that we're releasing from our dams at this particular time to facilitate the emergency recovery of victims.


JOHNSON: Yes, ma'am. We have a large, very large Tulsa district drainage area, and you just can't stop the water flowing. It will -- you just can't do that.

KEATING: Why don't we go ahead and stop this now, and then anybody who wants to talk to these individual folks, they'll stick around and answer your questions, OK? Thanks, everybody.

WHITFIELD: You've been listening to comments from various Oklahoma state officials, including Governor Frank Keating. Frank Keating described the tragedy on the Arkansas river earlier today. He said a tragic human accident. He described it as apparently an accident that occurred after the captain of this 495-by-54-foot barge apparently had a seizure while at the controls and losing control of that barge, as it crashed into this bridge crossing the Arkansas river.

At that point, several cars, as many as seven to nine vehicles, then plummeted into the depths of the river there. Fishermen who were nearby said that that was their count, seven to nine vehicles, and about four of the people were brought to safety. They have been hospitalized. Also being hospitalized, the captain of that barge.

Many patrol divers have wanted to get into the murky water in order to try to get to the other vehicles at the bottom, but they have been unable to do that because of the murky water and because of the currents. But in about 15 minutes now, conditions are going to be good enough for those divers to go in to the waters. Already one Marine reservist who is a diver, Josef Blann, did get an opportunity to go in to the waters, and earlier he described what he saw.


JOSEF BLANN, VOLUNTEER RESCUE DIVER: You're looking at a six, seven, maybe eight knot current pulling. I mean, it varies from time to time. There's three rivers that feed this one river. They're working on shutting it off, but if you shut it off, the barge will go down, the bridge will go down. It's very murky. The visibility is face in the hand, can't see nothing. It's -- it's pretty bad. It's pretty sickening. There's a lot of people in the water. There's debris, baby diapers, car seats up and down this side of the embankment. It's pretty nasty.


WHITFIELD: So once again, it's being considered a tragic human accident when that barge crashed into a bridge, sending several vehicles plummeting into the Arkansas river.

I'm Fredricka Whitfield at the CNN Center. We'll be updating this story for you throughout the evening.




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