JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – A Florida Department of Transportation supervisor says the damage from Thursday's ship strike "is about as bad as it gets without having a collapse," but had some potentially good news for commuters having to navigate around the Mathews Bridge: The span could be repaired and reopened within days of authorizing an emergency contract.
After transportation engineers surveyed the damage much of the day Friday, FDOT's Will Watts said assessment should be done early next week and a contractor could begin work replacing the beam broken in the ship strike. But first, temporary repairs will be made to ensure the bridge can support the weight of cranes and other heavy equipment needed to make permanent repairs.
"It's in such a state of damage ... we need to shore up the bridge enough to get those support vehicles on," Watts said.
Watts said the cost of repairs could run into the millions.
IMAGES: 1st DOT closeup images of damage
Maritime instructor Jay Powell says there are so many different things that could have made the USNS 1st LT Harry L. Martin smash into the side of the Mathews Bridge. He knows because not only is he a maritime instructor, but he used to navigate ships in the Navy.
He said the question is, was the tide higher than expected? Was the ship taller than people thought? Or was it a mixture of the two?
The Coast Guard said the cargo ship was not carrying a heavy load.
"Of course, as you take more stuff off the ship, as you take water out of voids, fuel out of tanks, the ship rides higher in the water," Powell said.
Powell said the wind and current could have been the problem, or it could have simply been human error.
"Once a ship starts swinging, it's so much weight. It's hard. It doesn't just stop on a dime," he said. "It's going to keep swinging that way and the inertia is going to carry it that way until the tug or whatever can check the swing and correct it."
Finding out what happened is now in the hands of the Coast Guard.
"Interviews are occuring. Vessel equipment is being looked at," said Lt. Cmdr. Alisa Praskovich, Coast Guard chief of investigations. "Records, documents, licenses, crew drug and alcohol testing: Those things are underway."
Powell isn't pointing fingers and he's confident the Coast Guard will get to the bottom of this.
"The captain is responsible for his ship, but when you have a pilot on board and you have tugs made up, there is really so much a captain can do because he is limited in his mobility," he said.
An average of 56,000 motorists who use the bridge each day to cross between Arlington and downtown will likely face major traffic backups at least through next week.
"The one thing we want to continue to stress to everybody, plan on leaving early. This will cause some issues with rush hour traffic, and during your morning commute. May want to consider, for those that can adjust their work schedules, to leave an hour early, come in an hour early, something to that effect," said Jacksonville Sheriff's Office spokesman Shannon Hartley.
The Hart Bridge was the primary detour, although others were encouraged to use the Main Street or Dames Point bridges.
Hartley said there is construction on MLK Parkway that could cause additional delays on Friday. (See full detour information below.)
After a Navy transport ship being towed by tug boats struck the span of the bridge about 2 p.m. Thursday, knocking loose a steel support beam, the DOT announced the Mathews Bridge would be closed to traffic until at least the early next week.
There were no reported injuries on the ship or civilian tugboats pulling the ship.
"The part of the bridge that gives the weight support for the traffic was damaged," FDOT spokesman Michael Goldman said. "That means it can't hold the weight, it can't hold the traffic. That's why we had to shut the bridge down for safety reasons."
The USNS Harry L. Martin, which struck the bridge, belongs to Military Sealift Command. It is government owned but operated by a civilian crew.
There was no damage estimate on the ship, and who will ultimately pay for the damage to the bridge one of the unanswered questions about Thursday's incident.
The Jacksonville Sheriff's Office is recommending the following detours around the Mathews Bridge:
East/Westbound detours through the downtown area: Eastbound primary detour route is to the Hart Bridge via the Union Street Expressway to the sports complex exit. Westbound primary detour route is to the Hart Bridge via Cesery Boulevard to Atlantic Boulevard. Motorists should be aware of possible additional delays due to heavy construction.
Detours for Arlington, Fort Caroline and Regency areas: Interstate 95 north to Zoo Parkway to the Dames Point Bridge.
Detours for Southside area: I-95 south to Emerson Street and University Boulevard exits.
The following road closures are in effect:
- East Beaver Street entrance ramp to Mathews Bridge
- MLK Pkwy. southbound at eastbound Mathews Bridge exit
- MLK Pkwy. southbound at downtown exit heading west into downtown
Because of the recent closure of the Mathews Bridge, the Jacksonville Transportation Authority advised its bus passengers who travel on the AR6, CT2, CT4, S1 and R5 routes to expect unusually longer trips until the bridge is reopened.
"Fortunately the citizens of Jacksonville have been understanding and understand that this is one of those unique situations ... we've got some good folks here in Jacksonville, we're going to get through it just fine," said Hartley.