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Death toll rises to 13 in bridge collapse

Rain hampers recovery efforts

A portion of the I-40 bridge where the barge struck it  

WEBBERS FALLS, Oklahoma (CNN) -- Two days after a 600-foot span of Interstate 40 collapsed into the murky waters of the Arkansas River, the death toll rose to 13 Tuesday, with more bodies expected to be recovered, authorities said.

Rain slowed the recovery effort and the threat of lightning kept divers out of the water.

Two more vehicles containing two men and two women were recovered from the river Tuesday, Highway Patrol Lt. Chris West told reporters. So far, the bodies of seven women and six men have been removed from 10 vehicles, he said.

About a third of the I-40 bridge fell after a towboat pushed a barge into a support Sunday morning. Authorities believe there are at least three semi-trailers and a cluster of other vehicles buried under slabs of concrete.

A fisherman who helped pull a survivor from the river said he watched helplessly as vehicle after vehicle drove off the edge and dove 60 feet into the water.

"That went on for almost five minutes. Just one car after another," said Norman Barton, who witnessed the disaster from his boat, where he was participating in a bass fishing tournament.

"It was just one car after another hitting the end of the bridge at 70 miles an hour. Nobody could see that the bridge was gone."

Oklahoma authorities have set up a family assistance center in Webbers Falls. The number is 918-464-2920. 
The Oklahoma Department of Transportation is asking highway travelers to avoid travel in eastern Oklahoma. Those who must travel in the region are asked to use State Highway 9 or U.S. 64. 
A barge struck an Oklahoma bridge, plunging vehicles into the Arkansas River. (May 26)

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At one point, Barton said fishermen along the river shot a flare at a tractor-trailer driving toward the gaping hole.

"That truck locked up, and stopped with his front wheels hanging over the bridge. Then he slammed it in reverse and backed up," he said.

Barton also said he threw a rope to James Bilyeu, of Conway, Arkansas, who was under water, and reeled him to safety. Bilyeu was treated at a hospital and released Monday.

"I've had a couple of conversations with him. ... I told his wife: 'As soon as he's up to it, let's go fishing,'" Barton said.

Although the identities of many victims have been withheld pending notification of relatives, several names have been released:

  • U.S. Army soldier Andrew Clements, 35, who was driving from California to see his family in Woodbridge, Virginia; his body was recovered Sunday evening.
  • Jeanine Catherine Cawley, 48, from Lebanon, Oregon; her body was recovered Monday morning from her Dodge pickup. Her husband survived the fall and was treated and released from a hospital.
  • Margaret Green, 45, from Stockdale, Texas, and Gail Shanahan, 49, from Corpus Christi, Texas; their bodies were recovered Sunday night from a white Dodge pickup.
  • Misty Johnson, 28, and her husband James Johnson, 30, both of Labaca, Arkansas; their bodies were recovered Monday evening. Their 3-year-old daughter Shay Nicole Johnson was traveling with them; her body has not been recovered.
  • Harlis "Wayne" Martin, 49, a police officer and volunteer diver from Norman, Oklahoma, and his wife Susan; their bodies were recovered Monday night. They had been headed to a family reunion in Clarksville, Arkansas.
  • Paul Tailele, Jr., 39, from Magna, Utah; his body was recovered Monday evening.
  • The search continued for other bodies. Recovery teams were using a clamshell -- a dredging bucket attached to a crane -- to retrieve debris and vehicles, West said. They also were using sonar to map the riverbed.

    Meanwhile, a Coast Guard spokesman said Tuesday the towboat pushing the barge had steering problems twice before.

    Cmdr. Jim McPherson said the boat, the Robert Y. Love, lost control and struck the Eads Bridge in St. Louis in May 1994. It also had a steering problem in another incident, he said without elaborating.

    Coast Guard Lt. j.g. Natalie Magnino said the 1994 steering problem was caused by debris that got caught in the rudder and did not result from mechanical failure or pilot error.

    Investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board have been interviewing the towboat's pilot, Joe Dedmon, 61, of Florence, Alabama. He told authorities he lost consciousness just before the accident.

    NTSB's George Black said the crash came as a surprise to the crew.

    "They heard no change in the engine power or attempt to go into reverse before impact," he said. "They heard no general alarm, and they heard no collision whistle."

    Cars and trucks were being routed around the heavily traveled interstate section. The Department of Public Safety released a phone number for people seeking alternate routes: 405 425-2385.

    The river has been closed for three miles on either side of the stricken bridge to keep the area clear for recovery efforts and because "we're not sure of the structural integrity of it," Magnino said.




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