The Bay Bridge will be closed at least through today’s early-evening commute after a piece of the bridge failed catastrophically and chunks of metal fell onto cars during Tuesday’s rush hour.
At 5:30 p.m. Tuesday, three cars were hit by falling pieces of metal that had been installed to support a cracked bar on the bridge. It was the same cracked bar that delayed the reopening of the bridge over Labor Day weekend while Caltrans made emergency repairs by placing a saddle, or brace, around the cracked bar to support it.
Several lanes on the bridge were closed immediately on Tuesday, and by 7 p.m., the California Highway Patrol had stopped traffic.
It is unknown when the bridge — which carries about 260,000 vehicles a day — will reopen, according to California Highway Patrol and Caltrans officials. The closure is expected to cause a morning commuter crush that has left transit agencies scrambling to accommodate the surge in ridership.
Commuters have been advised to stay home today, drive on other bridges or take BART if they must travel across the Bay. BART spokesman Linton Johnson said the transit agency will use “every available piece of equipment” to serve riders during the unexpected closure. AC Transit buses that normally cross the Bay Bridge will instead stop at BART stations, spokesman Clarence Johnson said.
The recently installed saddle and the long, cable-entwined rods that supported it somehow came loose Tuesday, as the bridge endured high winds. Meteorologist Dan Gudgel of the National Weather Service said gusts of about 30 miles an hour were felt both in Oakland and at San Francisco International Airport around that time.
Tony Sossong was driving eastbound just after 6 p.m. when he came across the scene. Police had just started to arrive.
The cable, about the diameter of a baseball bat, snaked across three of the five lanes on the Bay Bridge, he said. Two vehicles, one a compact car, looked like they had been somehow involved in the incident, Sossong said.
“People were pulled over and walking on the bridge taking pictures,” Sossong said.
CHP Officer Peter Van Eckhardt said the bridge will be closed as long as it takes to fix the bridge safely.
“They rushed things into place to make the repair originally so they’ll obviously be taking time to make sure they do this repair correctly,” Van Eckhardt said.
Transit authorities are recommending that people avoid traveling across the Bay by working from home or taking the day off of work. If travel is necessary, here are some options (for the most up-to-date travel conditions, check www.511.org):
BART will be operating every available car and is calling in extra personnel to alleviate the commute crunch. Longer trains will also be running during non-commute times. BART warned riders not to park at its stations if they can avoid it, as parking lots will likely fill up quickly.
The western span of the bridge will remain open for residents. Drivers must approach the Sterling Street onramp. Muni buses will still operate.
Several ferry operators will increase the amount of service during the closure.
Routes that normally cross the Bay Bridge will run as usual, but instead terminate at BART stations.
The three main east-west bridges to be used as alternatives — Richmond-San Rafael, San Mateo and Dumbarton bridges — and the Golden Gate Bridge will likely experience heavier-than-normal traffic. The Golden Gate Bridge will have all toll booths staffed by 4 a.m.
Source: BART, Golden Gate Regional Transportation District, 511.org, www.baybridgeinfo.org
A chunk of cable-entwined steel that fell on the Bay Bridge on Tuesday was a load-bearing brace installed last month during trouble-plagued repairs to replace a damaged support beam.
That beam, called an eyebar, was discovered in a fractured and corroded state while the bridge was closed for scheduled work over Labor Day weekend.
Damage to the load-bearing eyebar was so serious that Caltrans officials said the bridge would have been shut for emergency repairs if it had been discovered earlier. They said the bridge had last been inspected two years earlier.
Engineers hurriedly drafted blueprints for a makeshift repair job, and replacement steel parts were fabricated in Arizona, then raced to San Francisco for installation.
But as reported exclusively by The Examiner, the engineers made a blunder during the design process and the replacement parts did not fit together properly.
To complete the repairs, a 1,600-ton rectangular chunk of steel, called a spacer, was hurriedly fabricated in Oakland and installed as an improvised solution to help keep some of the new bridge components separated, prompting Caltrans to keep the bridge closed hours longer than scheduled.
The piece of steel that fell Tuesday, called a saddle, was installed during the eyebar repairs to help strengthen the bridge, according to Caltrans spokesman Bart Ney.
Tuesday’s incident raises fresh questions about the makeshift repair and about Caltrans inspection practices.
“These things don’t break suddenly,” said UC Berkeley engineering professor Abdolhassan Astaneh-Asl, an expert on the bridge.
Astaneh-Asl said Caltrans will need to thoroughly inspect the entire eastern span of the bridge because Tuesday’s damage suddenly caused the bridge’s weight to be carried by other eyebars.
8.4 miles Length of Bay Bridge
260,000 Average vehicles that use the Bay Bridge daily
39,555,251 Vehicles paying to use bridge in fiscal year 2007-08
525 feet Height of tower on new self-anchored suspension