Motorists returned to the westbound lanes of the Atchafalaya Basin Bridge on Wednesday, cruising over fire-damaged concrete after an inspection team determined that Interstate 10 was safe to carry traffic despite multi-vehicle crashes that closed the span for two days.
Three chemical tanker trucks, two cargo trucks and a passenger vehicle were involved in a series of crashes Monday afternoon and one truck driver died. Fire damaged the road’s surface and debris littered the westbound lanes until early Wednesday.
State inspectors, some using a bucket truck to look beneath the elevated highway, declared the 17-mile bridge safe Wednesday afternoon. They found only minor damage to the road’s surface, and no structural problems, amid concerns extreme heat could have jeopardized the bridge’s stability.
The initial crash involved two 18-wheelers and one vehicle, and slowdowns due to a stopped vehicle spurred two other crashes in the area, according to Louisiana State Police. Plumes of smoke bellowed into the sky into Monday night.
Authorities said 31-year-old Christopher McGee of Youngstown, Florida, died at the scene after his Freightliner tractor-trailer caught fire. Five other people were injured.
The inspection team found that the fire caused concrete in some areas to crack and chip off, leaving a mottled surface that will eventually need to be repaired.
“It’s safe to drive,” said Rodney Mallet, a spokesman for the Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development. He said that while the road has visible burn marks, it shouldn’t be bumpy for drivers.
David Miller, the DOTD’s chief maintenance officer, supervised the review, including the check below the bridge’s traveling surface.
"It looks like we just got a bunch of soot underneath, and it doesn't look like there is significant damage down there," he said.
The department said it's working to quickly repair the damage, which will require them to remove the top layer of the bridge deck and pour concrete. The agency didn’t set an immediate timetable for when those repairs will happen.
Police rerouted traffic nearly to U.S. 190 for a 73-mile detour from Lobdell to Lafayette, causing significant slowdowns in the area since the Monday afternoon. The trip via I-10 is 48 miles.
The interstate’s eastbound lanes were closed from Monday night to Tuesday morning after officials established a safety zone with a half-mile radius.
“We appreciate everyone’s patience during this event and would also like to thank the communities and our law enforcement partners along U.S. 190 who saw additional traffic after this tragic crash,” DOTD Secretary Shawn Wilson said in a statement after the bridge opened to traffic.
He blamed most crashes along between Baton Rouge and Lafayette along I-10 on distracted driving. The stretch of highway sees some 55,000 vehicles travel on it both directions each day.
Records show the Atchafalaya Basin Bridge alone has had 1,183 accidents since 2014, resulting in 13 deaths. Those figures include 132 accidents and at least three deaths so far this year.
The rate of accidents has led some motorists to contend enforcement of speed is the bridge’s ultimate problem. Others say State Police routinely issue tickets to passenger vehicles and 18-wheelers, but manpower shortages prevent officers from doing more.
Trucks are required to drive in the right lane at a 55 mph speed limit while on the bridge, and cars can drive at 60 mph.
"It would be beneficial for all travelers to concentrate on the road while operating a vehicle, drive the posted speed limit, buckle up, don’t drive impaired and be considerate of other drivers,” Wilson said.