Remembering The Skagit River Bridge Collapse-7 years later (May 23, 2013)

Chris Nelson wrote this 6 years ago at the one year anniversary.  Thought we would reshare it today.

It’s been nearly a year since the Skagit River Bridge collapsed.  On May 23rd, 2013 an oversize load struck the Skagit River bridge on Interstate 5,  between Mount Vernon and Burlington, Washington. The interstate is a major thoroughfare from Canada to Seattle. As the oversize load struck the bridge, the bridge collapsed into the Skagit River. I took with it innocent drivers who just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.  I happened to be near the bridge with my wife and two kids when it collapsed and was one of the first people on the scene alongside one of the first responding Burlington Police officers.

My wife was driving that day and we were headed to the mattress store near the bridge to buy a new mattress for our daughter. We never made it. When we turned the corner from Burlington Boulevard onto the road that goes under the bridge on the North Side of the river and she saw the bridge collapsed into the water she immediately stopped the vehicle in the middle of the roadway and was in shock. A major fear of hers is going over bridges. She has always feared of one collapsing while driving over one.

As a former Firefighter/EMT, I immediately grabbed her cell phone, as my battery was dead and I jumped out of our car and ran down the dike to get to the bridge to see if I could assist with any rescue efforts. If you’ve met me, you know I don’t run very often, but I sprinted right next to the officer to the bridge.  Our initial survey of the scene, showed a few vehicles in the water, one, which at the time appeared to be a large semi type vehicle and it was upside down, nearly completely submerged with just the wheels showing. We weren’t sure at first if it was a bus or a semi or a motor home.  There was a truck and we could see at least one person in the truck. To the right of the truck was a small orange-colored compact type car with the driver sitting on the roof.  The lights were still on and the windshield wipers continued to swipe from side to side. After a few brief moments to grasp the magnitude of the situation, not knowing what had brought the bridge down, and some scene assessment,  we were able to make voice contact with the driver of the small car and realized the vehicle that we saw that was upside down and submerged was actually a travel trailer being towed by the pickup. The pickup driver was alert, and we were told he had a passenger who was injured, cold, and wet. We didn’t know the extent of her injuries. The subject we were able to talk to on the roof of the compact car, was wet and cold, partially in shock,  but otherwise appeared not to be injured. The response that followed was anything short of amazing.

The Burlington Police and Fire departments showed up on our side of the scene and the Mount Vernon Police and Fire department responded to the Mount Vernon side of the scene. Multiple Washington State Patrol troopers arrived. As these first responders were arriving, we were watching the travel trailer being essentially ripped apart by the force of the current of the river. Parts of the trailer were coming loose from the main structure and were floating down the river. We didn’t know how stable the bridge was or if the current was going to shift the bridge and drop the vehicles into the cold water.  Essentially we were on the side of the river, unable to help. Within moments, the Mount Vernon Fire department command rig arrived on the Burlington side of the scene. When I saw, Mike Vos, exit the command rig, immediately I knew everything was going to run smoothly. I had known Mr. Vos previously from my  Search and Rescue involvement and my time on the Fire Department. I know Mr. Vos trains extensively and he takes his job seriously.  Mr. Vos initiated command and requested an MCI status. The resources he requested one by one made it appear that he had already run an MCI bridge collapse. He knew exactly what he was going to need and he requested every resource he needed in the preparation of maybe going to need it before it was actually needed. EMS units arrived and staged. After a few minutes, the EMS rigs were moved to a safer spot in case something happened and the bridge was to shift or move. Scene safety was the number one priority.  The response was amazing to witness. The multi-agency response was essentially flawless and you could tell that all the first responders took their training seriously. They were prepared for anything.  I was witnessing something that most people have never witnessed in their life and most people never will witness.

What followed was very precise and methodical searching downstream for victims by some units while others went above the scene and surveyed the scene looking down from the bridge. Some other units were gearing up for patient rescue, multiple other units were setting up rescue lines, and no one seemed panicked. They were all using their training in real life. From the distance we heard the sound of a chopper and we witnessed the Choppers from Snohomish County fly over the scene. They did a brief ariel search of the river and then landed in the parking lot next to the bridge.  The rescuers exited the choppers, put on their dive gear, and made their way to the river’s edge to hop into the boats that were arriving.  During this time all the mutual aid units that were requested started showing up and representatives from nearly every fire and EMS  agency in the county responded. Units from Snohomish County responded.  We witnessed the victims being rescued by boat and we were able to “live tweet” and post the incident as it happened on our personal Facebook Page.  Our photos of the incident were shared thousands of times around the world and made the front page of several major news agencies.  In the end, everyone was rescued, there were no fatalities, and not only did we witness history, but we also witnessed the training, dedication, and professionalism of our local first responders put into action.

What followed the initial shock of the bridge collapse was the idea to start “Skagit Breaking” in case of another major incident and to keep local citizens informed of local happenings. Although we did not expect another major incident in Skagit County,  Skagit Breaking again became a huge part of another major incident with the Oso Landslide. In essence, the Skagit River Bridge Collapse brought you Skagit Breaking. We all know that months of traffic backups followed as well as hundreds of thousands of dollars in lost business revenue for Skagit County and the tragic traffic accident death of Trooper Sean O’Connell while directing detour traffic.  Here are some of the photos we took of the rescue and response on May 23rd, 2013.

A year later it seems as though this just happened yesterday. It goes to show that in a moment, your life can change. Story and Photos Brought to you by Chris Nelson



About the Author

Chris Nelson
I'm a long time Skagit County Resident. I believe in doing the right thing and helping others when you can.

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