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Fainting spell led to barge crash, bridge collapse, NTSB concludes
Wednesday, Sep 1, 2004

By Steve Tetreault
Stephens Washington Bureau

Investigators said Capt. William Joseph Dedmon reported suddenly losing consciousness while he was alone in the pilot house on the Sunday morning of May 26, 2002.

While fainting victims usually revive once they fall prone, Dedmon remained lodged in his deckchair, causing him to be unconscious for a worrisome four minutes, said Dr. Mitch Garber, an NTSB medical investigator.

In that time, the vessel heading north on the Arkansas River pushing two empty asphalt tank barges, each 297 feet long, veered out of its navigation channel and rammed a bridge pier at 7:45 a.m.

The impact collapsed a 503-foot bridge section. Eight cars and three truck tractor-trailers traveling I-40 fell from the bridge, killing 14 people. Another five people were injured in the accident that caused $30.1 million in damages.

Traffic on the major highway was detoured through eastern Oklahoma until repairs were completed 65 days later to the major commercial route.

The five-member National Transportation Safety Board voted unanimously to accept the conclusions of a two year staff investigation into the accident at the river span 47 miles west of Fort Smith.

NTSB chairman Ellen Engleman Conners said the accident exposed a significant safety gap in the nation's transportation network. Only several major bridges are equipped with systems to alert motorists to big problems ahead.

"No matter how safe you make the cars and the highways you have thousands of points of vulnerabilities for every family on our national highway system," Conners said.

"The impact of htis accident cannot be overemphasized," Conners said. "It begs the question of America's vulnerabilty had this been a security incident instaead of a safety accident."

There would have been more deaths had it not been for the actions of two fishermen on the river who witnessed the bridge collapse, officials said.

One of the fishermen launched a signal flare that alerted the driver of a tractor-trailer rig approaching the void. The rig halted on the bridge, blocking the lanes and preventing other vehicles from passing by and plunging.

The fishermen were identified as Kirk Washburn and Alton Wilhoit. NTSB staff could provide no further information on them on Tuesday.

Conners called the fishermen "American heroes."

"They came to the help of others," Conners said. "It is amazing how these unsung heroes are."

Investigators concluded the accident also could have been prevented had a second crew member been required to be in the pilot house, or if there had been a crew alarm system onboard.

Several towing companies have begun testing alerter systems that set off alarms if a tug's rudder or its pilot shows no signs of activity after several minutes, NTSB investigator JIm Scheffer said.

The NTSB recommended the Coast Guard evaluate the effectivess of onboard alerter systems.

The agency also recommended the Federal Highway Administration revise the way it prioritizes bridge repairs to take into account the absence of barriers that shield pillars from boat strikes.

It also urged development of motorist warnings that can stop traffic in the event of a bridge collapse.

NTSB investigator Robert Accetta said motorists on I-40 had no time to brake by the time they saw the problem ahead.

Motorists "fell off the edge of the world here because you have no alerter systems that could tell the motorists what was occuring," Conners said.

Investigators ruled out alcohol or drugs as a cause for Dedmon's collapse. He was 60 at the time of the accident, with 40 years experience on tugs.

After reviewing his activities in the 72 hours before the crash, NTSB staff concluded "the captain had a sleep deficit at the time of the accident." He had slept about nine hours in the two days before the crash, and had taken an allergy medication that could have caused drowsiness.

But investigators concluded fatigue probably was not a factor because of the way Dedmon described passing out suddenly.

Advanced medical testing after the accident revealed Dedmon had an abnormal heart rhythm. But Garber said it had not caused him to lose consciousness before.

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