An overturned semitruck on the Alaskan Way Viaduct blocked traffic for about nine hours and caused traffic delays throughout the Seattle area.

Share story

Seattle Mayor Ed Murray is defending the nearly nine hours it took the city to clear a toppled truckload of salmon that made for a nightmare Tuesday evening commute, insisting hastier measures would have spilled fish across Highway 99.

The truck flipped on the southbound lanes about 2:30 p.m., at a curve just beyond the Alaskan Way Viaduct. The highway wasn’t reopened until after 11 p.m.

The salmon container landed next to a Seattle Tunnel Partners (STP) work zone, where it might have been pulled or pushed out of traffic lanes.

Instead, police summoned Lincoln Towing, its on-call contractor to clear collisions. Tow trucks managed to get the truck upright about 7 p.m.

Then they discovered that the trailer of frozen fish had shifted so much that to drive it away would have created a new risk of toppling, according to police spokesman Sgt. Sean Whitcomb.

So STP finally did get involved, by lending a crane to stabilize the damaged container so it could be unloaded, Whitcomb said.

Murray told reporters Wednesday that not unloading the truck before moving it off the highway way might have spilled the fish and “caused a major traffic problem this morning as well as last night. I think the decisions that were made were solid decisions.”

Police officials and the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) plan a review. SDOT Director Scott Kubly said that will include communications, and whether the right equipment was requested.

The driver in Tuesday’s crash suffered non-life-threatening injuries.

Last year, the city pledged to improve incident coordination after a fatal crash near Spokane Street closed Highway 99 for eight hours. “It was a transformative event that highlighted communications procedural deficiencies that required improvement to better serve the traveling public,” the report said.

And the city did produce timely communication Tuesday, in the form of accurate tweets and alerts to travelers. SDOT monitored events from its control center at the 37th floor of the Seattle Municipal Tower. And police officers quickly diverted traffic and moved stranded drivers off the viaduct.

Kubly said a perfect storm of incidents combined to ruin the commute: A bus hit a pedestrian on Second Avenue, there were two crashes just north of the Aurora Bridge, and fans were trying to get to Sodo for a Sounders FC game. Traffic was bad enough commuters commonly waited 1½ hours for a bus, while drivers took at least an hour to cross downtown or South Lake Union.

“This truly highlights the fragility of the system,” Kubly said.

The Sounders match against Tijuana was delayed, and Sounders goalkeeper Stefan Frei had to run through downtown to CenturyLink Field when his car got stuck in traffic.

Even tow trucks were delayed by congestion, because they were stationed north of downtown, police said. A timeline says police called Lincoln at 2:53 p.m., but the second tow truck didn’t arrive until 4:05 p.m. The container was damaged, and tow operators spent three hours trying different methods to upright it.

Doug MacDonald, former state transportation secretary, said the city should have opened an emergency operations center, so command decisions would be made at the highest levels.

“What this causes one to wonder is whether the culture of urgency is embraced by traffic managers,” MacDonald said.

Kubly said he wouldn’t necessarily want to command a crash scene, and it makes sense for police to take charge.

He said that in addition to spilling fish, an attempt to drag or push a steel container would have damaged the roadway.

“I don’t think much good would have come of it,” he said.

A national standard doesn’t exist for how fast to clear wreckage, said Lloyd Brown, spokesman for the American Association of Highway and Transportation Officials in Washington, D.C. “Every situation is unique,” he said.

An agreement signed in 1954 places jurisdiction over Highway 99 to the city, not the state Department of Transportation, which staffs an incident-response fleet stationed on nearby Interstate 5. The State Patrol says it pays towing companies a $2,500 bonus for clearing wrecks within 90 minutes.

But this was no ordinary crash, and state officials point out they wouldn’t have a crane handy to hoist a tank of fish.

Seattle Tunnel Partners had equipment to share. A half-mile to the north, its workers will be lifting a 4 million-pound piece of tunnel-boring machine Bertha in a week or two.