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Renewed calls for bridge warning system



Coroner’s jury recommended system following M Creek collapse

A Pemberton resident said the fatal accident at the Rutherford Creek Bridge could have been prevented if there had been a bridge warning system in place.

"I think the bridge washout... is kind of unavoidable," said Ash Chester, a Pemberton resident who was stuck in Vancouver after the floods closed the Sea-to-Sky Highway last weekend.

"But the fact that there was no warning system I think is a little bit negligent.

"I think the deaths were avoidable."

He isn’t the only one to call for a bridge warning systems on the Sea to Sky Highway.

More than 20 years ago when the wooden M Creek bridge near Lions Bay was washed out by rain debris and nine people died, a coroner’s jury developed a series of recommendations, among them "installing automatic lights to warn motorists a bridge has collapsed."

Though it was a long time ago, Ministry of Transportation spokesperson Jeff Knight, was about to dig up some information about what happened to the coroner’s jury recommendations.

"Warning lights were place at three or four of the wooden bridges at the Sea to Sky Highway where there was a concern they could be vulnerable to a washout situation such as M Creek," he said.

The Rutherford Creek bridge was not a wooden bridge and had no warning lights early on Saturday morning when it washed out and two cars plunged into the river. Two men died in the accident. As of press time on Wednesday night, two more men were missing and presumed drowned.

"I’ve driven the highway so many times and on Friday if that bridge had been out when we were driving, there’s no way in hell we would have seen it," said Chester.

"It’s dark. It’s rainy. You wouldn’t have time."

At Monday’s meeting Whistler Councillor Nick Davies also presented his idea of a bridge warning system that would activate flashing lights and send a satellite signal to the emergency call centre.

In a rough diagram Davies outlined his idea. It calls for a solar-powered circuit that would send a pulse down the wires to determine if they are intact. The wires would be designed to break if the bridge moved.

If the pulse detected a break in the circuit, a signal would fire up warning lights and inform local authorities.

Davies said while the technology may not have been around when Highway 99 was first constructed or when the Rutherford Creek bridge was built in 1971, he does not doubt that it’s available now.

"I guess it’s a case (that) technology has outpaced society," he said.

"With technology these days it’s all changed."

Transportation Minister Judith Reid toured the area by helicopter on Tuesday after the weekend’s flooding.

"When you look at the site (Rutherford Creek) and realize the magnitude of the water coming down no one could have been able to predict that," said Reid.

"So the question that is being asked is, ‘is there anything that can be done with bridges in general in case one goes out in the middle of the night?’"

She said the Ministry of Transportation would be investigating new bridge technology.

It’s not the first time such an investigation has been held. In October 1981 nine people were killed after the M Creek bridge near Lions Bay collapsed and their cars drove off the highway into the water.

After the tragedy, in addition to putting warning lights on a few bridges, the ministry of transportation also replaced at least 11 wooden bridges with new structures along the highway.

"The newer bridges were built with longer clear spans that removed the need for bridge supports in the debris path," said Knight.

In addition three debris torrent basins were constructed to collect debris upstream before it could hit the bridge structure. The torrent basins are at Charles Creek, Harvey Creek and Magnesia Creek. All of these upgrades came out of the M Creek disaster.

"(But) we’re going back 20 years ago," said Knight.

"The exact response to this (coroner’s jury) recommendation by the government of the day 20 years ago isn’t known."

Minister Reid said the main priority right now is to get the transportation links open. She is anticipating a temporary bridge over Rutherford Creek to be up and open to single-lane traffic by the weekend, connecting Pemberton to Whistler and points south once again.

"The caveat there is that on the south side of the bank there is about another 30 feet that gave way just a couple to days ago so we have had to reconstruct that bank," Reid said on Tuesday.

"So as long as nothing untoward happens then we should be on schedule for this weekend."

Councillor Davies said once the dust has settled after the accident council would then initiate discussions between municipal staff and the provincial government.