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Alabama Interstate Bridge Collapse Snarls Traffic, Forces Rapid Repair

Tue February 19, 2002 - National Edition
Cindy Riley

Best known as “Malfunction Junction,” Birmingham’s I-59/I-65 interchange is undergoing major construction following a deadly explosion in January. A tanker loaded with petroleum collided with another vehicle, causing the truck to burst into flames and cause massive damage.

“It burned underneath the bridge and melted the girders to the point where they had a 10-ft. sag. It was a very dangerous situation, because the whole thing could have fallen at any time,” explained Tim Colvert, the chief bridge inspector of the Alabama Department of Transportation (ALDOT).

“When I arrived on the scene, it was obvious there was no repairing the bridge, so we started moving in equipment in an effort to clear out all the debris. It was quite a job,” he added.

Approximately 5,000 yds. (4,572 m) of rubble and 200 tons (181 t) of steel had to be hauled from the site, while transportation officials faced the task of getting lanes of traffic reopened in the coming days.

“We had about 50 men working in shifts around the clock. We pulled in everyone we could get hold of. We called in statewide bridge crews, and the district helped us with traffic control. We also were fortunate in bringing in The Morris Group Inc. which has teamed up with Brasfield & Gorrie LLC in a joint venture to get this job done,” Colvert noted.

According to Project Manager Duncan Morris, “This has become a very important assignment, affecting so many folks. When we got to the scene that first day, we knew there was plenty to do. First, we took backhoes with special attachments and demolished the concrete. We also used a Caterpillar 320 excavator with a 5,000-lb. hydraulic hammer and a Cat 350L excavator with a shear to slice the reinforcing steel and cut through the steel diaphragm. We used a 200-ton Liebherr crane to take down the beams. That took about a week. Things were pretty tense — it really got your adrenaline going. At first we were extremely cautious and broke things up slowly, but then we realized that the bridge was fighting us — it didn’t want to come down easily.

“Our next step was working on the foundation H-pilings and the concrete substructure, which consists of footings, columns and caps. From there we take on the most challenging aspect of the job, which is erecting the pre-stressed concrete girders which are currently being fabricated,” added Morris.

Equipment for the erection of the new girders includes 150-ton (136 t) and 200-ton (181 t) Liebherr cranes, as the heaviest girders weigh about 56 tons (51 t). Other equipment used for construction of the new bridge includes a Link-Belt 138HII crawler crane, a Cat 325 excavator with a 7,500-lb. (3,402 kg) hydraulic hammer, the Cat 320, a Cat 953C loader, a Cat DC5 loader, a Hyundai 130 excavator, a Komatsu D39P-1 bulldozer, and Link-Belt 8050 and 8040 rough-terrain cranes.

Also on the job is Brasfield & Gorrie Project Manager Juan Carlos Ospina. “We’re responsible for half the labor and equipment on this assignment. Right now we’re actually running a few days ahead of schedule. We’ve had some bad weather, but the crews out here are very dedicated. We’ve got folks working in shifts throughout the night. We have light towers set up to accommodate them when needed. We also have concrete being delivered at all hours. This is an emergency situation, and everyone is really going the extra mile. The department of transportation has especially gone out of its way to help us. That means a lot when you’re up against a tight deadline.”

Crews have been given only 90 days to complete the job, which involves crews working around the clock, seven days a week, rain or shine. The tight schedule is the result of the governor’s efforts to speed up the process.

“The bid process, the plans, everything was done so much quicker than usual. What normally takes months to get approved took a matter of days. It’s very important to get this interchange back to working order. We have been able to get several lanes back open with little difficulty, but there are obviously still some closings,” Colvert explained.

“But overall it’s been a very positive experience. I can’t stress how everyone has come together to make our job a lot easier. It makes a big difference when you’re dealing with a project of this magnitude. And I think it’s important to remember that the situation could have been so much worse. About 150,000 cars cross over or under the bridge each day. If this wreck had occurred on a weekday, during rush hour, we could have seen hundreds of people killed. We were very lucky, in that respect,” he continued.

The estimated cost of the demolition and new construction is $2.5 million, according to ALDOT. CEG

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