A chunk of Interstate 5 collapsed into the Skagit River near Mount Vernon on Thursday evening, dumping two vehicles into the icy waters and creating a gaping hole in Washington state’s major north-south artery.
Officials said the highway will not be fixed for weeks at the very least.
Rescuers pulled three people with minor injuries from the water after the collapse, which authorities say began when a semitruck with an oversized load struck a steel beam at around 7 p.m.
That caused a massive piece of the northern side of the bridge to wobble, and then fall into the water, taking with it a gold pickup, its travel trailer and an orange SUV.
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Rescuers did not believe there was anybody else in the water but were planning a morning search to be sure.
The National Transportation Safety Board announced it is launching an investigation into the collapse.
Officials urged residents to avoid traveling in the area for the foreseeable future.
“We Washingtonians are going to have to do what we do best, which is to hold together, to show strength of character and a good deal of patience,” Gov. Jay Inslee said in a late-night news conference at the scene.
Inslee expressed relief the injuries were not greater.
One of the victims, 47-year-old Dan Sligh, of Oak Harbor, said he was happy to be alive.
“You talk miracles,” Sligh said in an interview outside the hospital. “I don’t know what you want to call it. When you’re sitting down in the water and all that mangled metal of the bridge. You look around and you pinch yourself.”
Sligh said he and his wife Sally were in the pickup, on the way to a Memorial Day weekend camping trip near Granite Falls when he saw a semitruck strike a side of the southbound Interstate 5 bridge over Skagit River.
“Forward momentum just carried us right over and as we saw the water approaching,” he said. “You just hold on as tight as you can. Then just a white flash and cold water.”
Sligh said he dislocated his shoulder but got out of the pickup. His wife was knocked unconscious, and he kept her head above water until the rescuers arrived more than an hour later.
The SUV driver, a 20-year-old man, was able to get out of his vehicle, said Marcus Deyerin of the Northwest Washington Incident Management Team.
The victims were treated at local hospitals.
The bridge, built in 1955, was inspected twice last year and repairs were made, according to state Transportation Secretary Lynn Peterson.
The bridge is classified as a “fracture critical” bridge by the National Bridge Inventory.
That means one major structural part can ruin the entire bridge, as compared with a bridge that has redundant features that allow one member to fail without destroying the entire structure.
The bridge is used by an average of about 70,000 vehicles per day, 12 percent of which are trucks.
Those vehicles will now have to find another route.
Travis Phelps, a spokesman for the state Department of Transportation, said “this is going to be a long-term traffic issue, because we need to rebuild this section of I-5.”
But he added the shutdown “is not going to be years, but it could be weeks.”
A timeline of merely “weeks” raises the possibility of a temporary structure being installed, but Phelps said “right now, it’s way too soon to tell” what might happen.
The DOT and contractors will be looking at different options in the next few days, Phelps said.
“It’s going to be H-E-double toothpicks,” said resident Ron Engstrom, 68, of Mount Vernon.
On Thursday night, the collapse attracted attention across the country. Onlookers also flocked to the scene to watch the rescue, cheering as each victim was brought ashore. Police had to push back hundreds of spectators.
Among those pushed back was Ramiro Ortiz, 40, who used to live in a migrant-worker camp near the bridge. He rushed from Blaine to see the collapse in person because, for an entire summer in the 1980s, Ortiz would cross the bridge by foot.
Every day, Ortiz said, he’d worry about whether a car would hit him or a friend as they crossed. But he never worried about the bridge falling from beneath him.
“I just find it shocking that a bridge like that would fall without any bomb going off or anything,” he said.
Other witnesses described the scene as surreal.
State Patrol trooper Jason Betts, who was the first to arrive, said it was incredible that only two vehicles fell in the water.
“It’s a miracle,” Betts said. “That is the only way I can explain it.”
Seattle Times staffers Brian M. Rosenthal, Jennifer Sullivan, Rick Lund, Steve Miletich, Cheryl Phillips and Alexa Vaughn contributed to this report.