DOVER, Del. — A Delaware businessman said he told state transportation officials nearly two months ago something was wrong with a major highway bridge, raising further questions about why they waited until this week to inspect the span and close it after discovering tilting supporting columns.
Charles Allen Jr. told The Associated Press on Friday he noticed that the cement Jersey barriers dividing the northbound and southbound lanes of the Interstate 495 bridge in Wilmington were separating when driving over the bridge on April 15.
“I’ve been driving that road for 34 years,” said Allen, owner of an automotive body shop in Wilmington who lives in Elkton, Maryland. “When you see something off, it catches your eye.”
Allen, 53, said he called 911 after not being able to reach the transportation department immediately. He said a transportation official called him back minutes later and told him someone would look at the bridge the following day. He said that was the last he heard from the department before he started making calls again after the bridge was closed Monday.
“I was ditched by these guys,” Allen said. “They didn’t do their job and they really aggravated me. … That’s what makes me so mad.”
Allen spoke to the AP after The News Journal of Wilmington published an interview with him on its website Friday. The newspaper also posted a recording of the 911 call.
Transportation secretary Shailen Bhatt told the AP his department is “running down details” on Allen’s story and will provide a full briefing on Monday.
Kelly Bachman, a spokesman for Democratic Gov. Jack Markell, said the governor “has full confidence in Secretary Bhatt.” She said the state’s focus was on finding a way to fix the bridge, and once that’s done, officials will fully evaluate the agency’s response.
Earlier Friday, Bhatt said an engineer working on an unrelated project near the bridge first reported problems with the bridge May 29. Bhatt said senior managers in his agency became aware the next day and ordered an inspection Monday. The bridge was closed immediately.
“We closed the bridge in time,” he said. “We did not have a failure. That bridge is still standing and nobody has been injured. I’m happy to accept responsibility for this agency’s actions.”
Still, Bhatt said he would have preferred his agency to have moved more quickly to inspect and shut down the bridge.
The bridge, which normally carries an average of 90,000 vehicles daily around Wilmington, will be closed indefinitely as engineers figure out how to brace it. Most of the detoured traffic is on already-clogged I-95, which passes through downtown.
The federal government has pledged to pay 90 percent of the cost of permanent repairs and has already approved $2 million in emergency funds. The cost of fixing the bridge hasn’t been determined.
Engineers working with Delaware officials suspect that a massive mound of dirt dumped near the bridge, partly on the government’s property, might have caused the ground underneath the span to shift and four pairs of columns to tilt. The contractor who stored the dirt there is working with the state to remove it.
Officials said Friday that the weight of the dirt mound has been estimated at 50,000 tons. That’s equal to about 1,250 18-wheel tractor-trailers at the maximum gross vehicle weight of 80,000 lbs.
Officials also said Friday that tilt sensors placed on the bridge Monday have shown no additional significant movement.
Engineers have completed inspections of all eight affected columns and found cracking consistent with the lateral displacement of soil, in all the concrete footers. No corrosion was found in the tops of the underground steel piles anchored to the footers.
Agency consultants are reviewing design options to create a new foundation for the damaged section of the bridge, officials said.
Dave Charles, the geotechnical engineer who reported the problem last week, said he returned to the bridge on Tuesday and saw that the columns had shifted even farther.
Charles said after he and a colleague working on an unrelated project near the bridge noticed May 29 that it appeared to be tilting, he sent matter-of-fact emails with cellphone photographs about 6 p.m. that day to an employee of the Delaware transportation department’s bridge unit. Charles said the employee, whom he declined to name, acknowledged about 90 minutes later that he had received the emails.
“I think the person who received it took it seriously,” Charles said.
In his April 911 call, Allen is heard telling a dispatcher, “It appears to be an emergency. … The two road beds are lifting up opposing each other, and it doesn’t look right. Something’s wrong. … There may be something seriously wrong with that bridge.”