PITTSBURGH (AP) – A 50-year-old bridge collapsed in Pittsburgh early Friday, requiring rescuers to rappel nearly 150 feet (46 meters) and form a human chain to reach residents in a bus that plunged with the buckle into a park gorge.
The collapse came hours before President Joe Biden was due to visit the city to advance his $ 1 trillion infrastructure law, which has earmarked about $ 1.6 billion for the maintenance of Pennsylvania bridges.
There were minor injuries from the collapse, but no deaths, said authorities, who also flew drones to ensure no one was under collapsed sections. Five other vehicles were also on the bridge at the time. The cause was investigated and crews searched the waste for additional victims.
City officials said the Forbes Avenue bridge over Fern Hollow Creek in Frick Park fell at 6 p.m. 6:39. Witnesses said the loud noise from the collapse was followed by a hissing sound and the smell of natural gas.
“The first sound was much more intense and a kind of rumble, which I suppose was the structure, the deck that hit the ground,” said Ken Doyno, a resident who lives four houses away. “I mean, the whole house was rattling at that point.”
Blown gas lines along the bridge caused the leak and the gas supply was shut off within half an hour, city officials said.
A spokesman for the National Transportation Safety Board, an independent government body investigating transportation problems, said Friday that the agency sent a team of about 10 people to investigate “not just what happened, but why it happened.”
Sam Wasserman, a spokesman for Pittsburgh Mayor Ed Gainey, said a few hours after the collapse that officials were evaluating the site and that a search and rescue team was still combing the area for any other possible victims.
He said most of the 10 people assessed for injuries were first aiders who were checked for exhaustion or due to the cold and snowy weather. Three people were taken to hospitals and no one was seriously injured, Wasserman said.
The scene was reminiscent of the aftermath of an earthquake, with a large crack at the end of the bridge where the bus landed. There was also a car upside down in front of the bus.
A two-part, elongated Port Authority of Allegheny County bus was on the bridge when it collapsed, with two passengers on board in addition to the driver, said Adam Brandolph, a spokesman for the transit agency. All three were taken off safely.
About two hours after the collapse, Brandolph said, one of the passengers was on another bus when the passenger began complaining of injuries and was taken to a hospital. According to Brandolph, the driver and the other passenger were not injured.
The bus had started its route in downtown Pittsburgh and was on its way to the suburban community of Braddock.
“Judging by the time of day, had this bus run inwards towards the center, there would probably have been more people on the bus and could obviously have been a much, much more serious situation,” Brandolph said.
The bus had seven or eight cameras, and all footage they captured of the crash will be part of the investigation.
“We have not yet been able to review those footage, but we certainly hope so very soon,” Brandolph said.
Neighbors said a gas company worker went door-to-door to get them to evacuate from the immediate vicinity before the gas was shut off.
“Apart from just this persistent noise, we could start to smell gas and it was really scary, so with that smell we both said, let’s get dressed and get out of here,” said Lyn Krynski, whose home is closest to the bridge .
“It sounded like a weather phenomenon more than anything else,” said Douglas Gwilym, who was shoveling around an inch of snow when he heard the noise. “That was all I had to compare it to – it was this strange, buzzing sound.”
At the site of the crash, Pennsylvania called Lt. Gov. John Fetterman it “just a horrible, surreal scene.”
“I hope it’s a wake-up call to the nation that we need to make these infrastructure investments,” Fetterman said.
The bridge is a major artery leading to the Squirrel Hill and Oakland neighborhoods, and a popular route toward downtown Pittsburgh. Authorities asked motorists to avoid the area. Several neighbors said a two-hour school delay due to the weather may have prevented a far worse human tragedy.
During his visit to the city, Biden stopped at the site of the bridge’s collapse. He shook hands with law enforcement at a command post and looked over a barrier to investigate the damage.
“The idea that we’re been so far behind with infrastructure for so many years is inconceivable,” the president said.
The steel bridge, built in 1970, carries about 14,500 vehicles a day, according to a 2005 estimate.
Wasserman said the most recent inspection took place in September, but the report was not immediately available.
However, a September 2019 inspection of the city-owned bridge revealed that the deck and superstructure were in poor condition, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation’s National Bridge Inventory. A spreadsheet on the state Department of Transportation website listed the general condition of the bridge as poor, which according to the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation means that “the deterioration of primary structural elements is advanced.”
Scolforo reported from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Associated Press writers Tom Krisher of Detroit and Michael Rubinkam of northeastern Pennsylvania contributed to this report.