By Leonard Gildarie and Keeran Singh
Chaos ensued shortly before the rush hour yesterday morning, when a section of the Demerara Harbour Bridge collapsed, after two temporary pontoons located at the western end of the bridge sank, leaving thousands of commuters and vehicles stranded on both sides of the river. The pontoons were facilitating maintenance and rehabilitative works.
The 34-year-old structure (commissioned July 2, 1978) is the main link between Regions Three and Four, or more directly the capital city Georgetown and West Demerara, as well as the nation’s largest county, Essequibo.
While no one was reportedly injured in the frightening mishap, minibus driver Clyde Clarke barely managed to prevent his vehicle from disappearing into the murky waters that enveloped the section linking the two affected spans. The other 14 passengers on the bus had already frantically jumped from the vehicle.
This occurred around 06:45 hrs when the structure collapsed driving fear into the occupants of the lone minibus that was stranded on the sinking section. No one was injured but the bridge was immediately closed.
Minibus driver Clyde Clarke told Kaieteur News that he had just driven onto the bridge at the western end when misfortune struck.
“I heard a loud cracking sound and I realized that the bridge was collapsing, and my bus start rolling back,” a still shaken Clarke said. ”I was so confused, I open the door and run out of the bus and leave the passengers. I know it was wrong, so I ran back to get them.”
“The passengers were hollering as the bridge start to sink slowly. All 14 of them come out of the bus and we start running and leave the bus. But I couldn’t see me bus sink, even though it was already partly submerged in water, so I went back and drive the bus from the valley that was created.”
“It was really scary; it was an experience that I wouldn’t want to have again.”
Clarke opined that the consequences would have been tragic had the damage occurred farther out on the bridge.
He questioned how such a mishap could have occurred, when daily, maintenance crews can be seen working on the structure. Other minibus operators related that for about two days the weakness in that section of the bridge was being felt, but none of them reported this to management.
Dismissing doubts that the lack of maintenance caused the structure to collapse, General Manager of Demerara Harbour Bridge Corporation (DHBC), Rawlston Adams, stated that the mishap occurred between spans 60 and 61, situated near the western end, where maintenance and rehabilitative works are being executed.
He explained that the two temporary pontoons placed in that section to facilitate the change of the ‘A’ frames, which were severely corroded and damaged, sunk and caused the spans to submerge.
The operation to change the ‘A’ frames commenced Sunday at 05:30 hrs. No structural defects on the pontoons were identified when they were installed. But Adams revealed that “the temporary pontoons are older pontoons that the bridge has been using for quite awhile”.
“We suspect that the jaws on one of the uni-floats that is assembled for the temporary pontoons broke and that caused it to take in water. At present we have just installed the first salvaged pontoon and we are pumping it now and we are hoping once the tide is changed, we will then proceed to pump the water from the submerged pontoon thereby bringing the span up,” he said.
As a precautionary measure, bridge management was forced to shut-off power to the western retractor span power cable. Passage of ocean-going vessels was not disrupted since the bridge retracted at 05:30 hrs yesterday morning.
“There will be no more retractions until tomorrow (today) so we are hoping that by that time we would have gotten the span out, we can then make an assessment on the power and decide when we will turn it back on,” Adams added.
He noted that the restoration cost is unknown since a full evaluation has not been carried out as yet. The closure of the bridge will obviously result in the loss of much needed revenue, in various sectors.
Police were deployed and struggled to control the traffic around Vreed-en-Hoop, West Bank Demerara, where desperate workers converged on the speed boat facilities there for transportation to Georgetown.
Lines of vehicles stretched along both sides of the thoroughfare leading to Vreed-en-Hoop.
One resident from a nearby village briefly related that he was walking towards the bridge, when he was alerted to the seemingly dangerous angle of the first span at the western end.
There was immediate alarm as the realization dawned that the pontoon anchoring the first and second span was sinking. It is believed that an extremely high tide caused the pontoons to suffer stress.
Minister of Transport, Robeson Benn joined the DHBC’s General Manager on the scene as workers attempted to stabilize the collapsed section.
There was clear evidence that the bridge had shifted forward. A section of the pedestrian walkway that has become popular for persons exercising was twisted out of shape.
The bridge’s emergency workers initially, in their attempts to stabilize the bridge, used a flooded pontoon to raise the collapsed section. It was laborious work.
To raise the flooded pontoon, several pumps were used to empty it. Slowly the river water was seen reducing as the tide went out but it was a race against time, as the tide was slated to come in again in a few hours.
Yesterday afternoon, attempts were being made to bring the replacement pontoon closer to the collapsed section.
The closure of the bridge was described as a nightmare by those who essentially depend on it in various ways for their livelihood.
One miner, who said he was on the road four days from Aranka, Cuyuni, Region Seven, was caught at the western end of the bridge in a truck.
“This is frustrating. I am almost home and now this.”
At the Vreed-en-Hoop stelling, persons who arrived at the Cheddi Jagan International Airport on early morning flights were forced to use speedboats to cross the Demerara River.
At the Vreed-en-Hoop junction, police blocked the entrance to the old stelling causing a back-up of traffic. The vehicles parked at the side of the roadways there, and belonging to persons who ended up using the speedboats, did not help much to alleviate the traffic woes.
Sandtrucks and other suppliers were also caught unaware.
Government has been spending millions to maintain the structure which has outlived its lifespan. There have been calls for the rates to be increased, an option that government has not been too keen on.
It has been on record saying that the bridge is at its strongest.
Yesterday, at least one villager of La Grange said that workers of the bridge had recently replaced the same pontoon that sank after the old one apparently suffered problems.
Authorities announced that they were placing emergency measures in place to ensure that passenger speedboats be allowed to operate through the evening to cater for hundreds of additional passengers.
There were smiles on the faces of the speedboat operators at their unexpected fortune.
As at 17:00hrs yesterday, the Demerara River started to rise again. Workers will now have to deal with the real challenge of extricating the damaged pontoons and replace them. The impending darkness made it even more likely that a great deal of work will have to be done in the coming hours to enable use of the bridge as early as today.
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