The southbound Alaskan Way Viaduct was blocked midday Wednesday after a pair of huge spools became loose on a flatbed truck near Seneca Street. Officials cleared the road far more quickly than after the fish-truck crash last month.

Share story

The city of Seattle beat the clock Wednesday, by clearing a pair of spilled spools off the Alaskan Way Viaduct before they could tangle the afternoon commute.

A flatbed truck was going south at 11:34 a.m., when at least one of the 12-foot-diameter spools hit the bottom of the northbound upper deck, police said. The official clearance is only 14 feet.

The crash set police and transportation staff into motion. With help from a front-end loader and a forklift, crews set the spools back on the flatbed — but horizontally this time, to give a lower profile. The truck drove away at 2 p.m., under police escort, and stopped temporarily at a tunnel worksite.

Traffic on Highway 99 backed up as far as Denny Way, while a truck stall on I-5 caused more congestion and thwarted north-south detour routes.

The driver did not appear to be hurt. He was issued $482 in traffic citations for failure to obtain an overheight permit, and for striking the road structure. Police said thousands of dollars in other fines might be tacked on, to cover costs to retrieve the spools.

Seattle authorities applied some lessons from a March 24 truck accident that spilled a refrigerated container of cod onto the highway near CenturyLink Field — and took nine hours to clear, prompting news-media and public criticism.

“There was a heightened level of coordination this time, over last time, which was really, really good,” said Scott Kubly, director of the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT).

Luckily, police and state highway staff were already inside SDOT headquarters, for a meeting about clearing road incidents, he said. They collaborated at the city’s traffic-control center, on the 37th floor of the Seattle Municipal Tower. Among other moves, officials called in heavy equipment from Seattle City Light, as well as Highway 99 tunnel contractors. Highway cameras don’t exist at the crash site, so responders continually sent pictures to keep agencies and the public informed.

A witness, Brian Myers, said he saw smoke and debris behind the spool truck as it came to a stop. The driver did not appear to be injured.

“The spools had already fallen out. He had some chains and stuff on the ground,” said Myers, sales director for Uli’s Famous Sausage, who tweeted a photo before resuming his trip to Sodo in a delivery truck.

Myers said he picked up wood and chain pieces — and it appeared to him a chain broke loose that secured the spools to the flatbed.

The Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) said its bridge inspectors don’t think there is structural damage. One lane will be closed overnight for a secondary inspection, the agency said.

The viaduct shows some small chips, but otherwise escaped heavy damage, because the spools were mostly empty, said WSDOT spokesman Travis Phelps.

Authorities acknowledged this week that in the March 24 incident, protecting the cod, worth roughly a half-million dollars, took precedence over clearing regional traffic, and that in hindsight, SDOT should have pushed the load onto the Seattle Tunnel Partners job site several yards away, rather than spending time to have the container lifted, partially unloaded and driven away that night.

Wednesday’s two-hour response was notable, given that one of the spools tilted near the side rail of the overhead viaduct, a precarious situation. Kubly hesitated to compare the situation with the fish-truck incident, which involved much heavier cargo.

The spools weighed 700 to 1,000 pounds each, police said. City agencies said the truck, belonging to Midwest Specialized Transportation of Minnesota, was headed to Alabama.

City leaders have been second-guessed for recent incidents in the Highway 99 corridor and nearby: an eight-hour closure after a fatal crash; a noninjury crash that took nearly three hours to clear; overapplication of de-icing fluid that caused spinouts and a West Seattle Bridge closure; and the March 24 fish mishap, which created gridlock miles away.

Kubly said it was uppermost in his mind Wednesday to remove the spools before the afternoon commute. It was a race that this time, the city won.