South Padre death count rises to five in bridge collapse : LUSENET : Grassroots Information Coordination Center (GICC) : One Thread

South Padre death count rises to five By JAMES PINKERTON Copyright 2001 Houston ChronicleRio Grande Valley Bureau

PORT ISABEL -- Two bodies were recovered late Monday by workers who pulled three cars from bay waters beneath the highest span of the toppled Queen Isabella Causeway, bringing the known death toll to five. One victim has been spotted by divers in a car that has not yet been brought to the surface. That car and three others believed to contain three more victims were expected to be raised today. Three survivors are recovering at hospitals or have been released.

Three sections of the 2.37-mile causeway collapsed after the span was rammed early Saturday by industrial barges being pushed by a tugboat.

Thousands of visitors, students and residents are stranded on South Padre Island, and the operation of a car ferry will not begin until Wednesday morning. "It's going to be devastating" to the economy, said Cameron County Judge Gilberto Hinojosa, who has asked the county to be declared a disaster area.

A state car ferry, which arrived Saturday from Port Aransas, is not in service because loading docks are still under construction.

Engineers from the Texas Department of Transportation said repairs to the 240-foot section of causeway that fell will take four to six months to complete by Houston highway contractor Williams Brothers Construction Co.

In all, authorities located seven cars that plummeted 85 feet off the darkened causeway minutes after a 160-foot section of the span crashed into the Laguna Madre shortly after 2 a.m. Saturday. But the removal of the submerged vehicles did not begin until 1 p.m. Monday because of the unexpected collapse of another section Saturday that sent workers scrambling for safety.

"It's been a real sad day for a lot of the victims' families," said Texas Department of Public Safety trooper Adrian Rivera. Rescue divers from the DPS, working from two large boats equipped with a crane, found the cars in the water beneath the collapsed bridge, including one vehicle covered by the fallen span.

"It took about twice as long as we thought," said DPS Lt. Lynn Dixon, who headed a 14-diver rescue team. The bottom of the bay beneath the bridge was littered with chunks of concrete and lengths of metal beams and rebar. "There was so much debris, it's difficult to orientate yourself," said Dixon.

The first victim to be recovered was Robert "Bob" Harris, 46, Port Isabel's longtime fire marshal and a resident known for his generosity. His battered red pickup, which Dixon said was wedged beneath blocks of concrete, was lifted onto a highway department barge shortly before 3 p.m.

Friends said Harris was returning to the mainland early Saturday from his second job as a security officer at Louie's Backyard, a popular South Padre Island nightspot. Fellow officers said they understood Harris had stayed late to allow a co-worker to go home early.

"He was very well-respected, hard-working and very dependable," said Sgt. Mike Brinegar of the Precinct 1 constable's office in Port Isabel. "Whenever there was a fire call, you knew he was going to be there. "His death is going to be a great loss to the community."

DPS officials said Robin Leavall, 29, of Weslaco, was found in a Ford Mustang pulled from the water after Harris' car was recovered. The other two identified victims, Gaispar Saenz Hinojosa, 52, and Stvan Francisco Rivas, 23, of Humble, were pulled from the bay shortly after the accident but died in hospitals. The DPS said only three survivors were taken to area hospitals. A U.S. Coast Guard official said earlier reports of 13 rescues were erroneous.

Meanwhile, Coast Guard officials were quick to challenge a statement from Brown Water Marine Services of Rockport claiming the tug Brown Water V hit a sandbar in the channel and veered into the causeway. The company also said navigational lights were not working.

Chief Warrant Officer Rob Wyman on Monday said the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers surveyed the 14-foot-deep channel from Port Isabel to the causeway and did not find any obstructions. "The survey shows there was no apparent shoaling and the channel marked the appropriate depth throughout," Wyman said, adding that all buoys and lights marking the channel were in place. "Everything was OK."

The Texas Department of Transportation's district engineer, Amadeo Saenz, confirmed that navigational lights beneath the causeway's highest span were functioning. The lights designate the passage through the causeway to the intercoastal waterway.

On Sunday, Coast Guard investigators said it did not appear that the operator of the tug, relief captain David Fowler, was impaired, although they would not reveal the results of blood and urine tests administered to the five-member crew. The crew was identified as Fowler, Capt. Rocky Wilson and deckhands Joe Blocker, Ross Valigura and Levie Old, said Wyman. Wyman said the crew's ages and hometowns would not be released.

Local officials scoffed at the company's claims of a poorly maintained channel. "The excuse given by the barge company makes little sense. They're trying to shift the blame to someone else," said County Judge Hinojosa. "It's quite clear their pilot was responsible for the accident." But a member of the Brownsville law firm representing Brown Water said it "absolutely" stood behind its statement.

Coastal officials have speculated that high tides resulting from a hurricane in the eastern Gulf of Mexico may have been a factor in the accident. "We do know the tides were extremely high and there were some strong currents. ... If there were any mitigating factors, those would be the ones," said Bob Cornelison, director of the Port Isabel Navigation District.

-- Rich Marsh (, September 18, 2001

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