Tuesday, January 8, 2008
Down by the River, V
This is what the bridge inspector told me as we ate potato pancakes with applesauce by candlelight on Solstice, December 21, 2007:
After he heard the bridge collapsed, he said,
"I felt like vomiting for two days."
[Note: I absolutely clearly remember him saying that. Unless it's in quotes, the rest of this is paraphrased, but I won't give you any made up numbers or anything I'm not sure of. He didn't say anything that wasn't already known before the bridge fell, anyway.]
He'd known for twenty years that maintenance for the city's bridges wasn't sufficient.
The bridge was built as part of a massive national project begun under Eisenhower to expand America's transportation infrastructure.
When you build a bridge, he told me, you have choices about how strong you make it, and it costs more to make it stronger. At the time the bridge was built, it needed to carry xxx thousand (I forget the number he said) vehicles a day. They made it strong enough to carry X-times more than that, knowing traffic would increase.
But because so many roads and bridges were being built, they didn't spend the money to make it strong enough to carry 140,000 vehicles a day, which is what it was carrying in 2007.
And since the Reagan era, the government hadn't allotted enough money to do routine maintenance such as repainting the steel to protect it against elements such as pigeon shit and road salt.
Mixed with melting snow and rain, those and other agents corrode steel.
"So, you weren't surprised when the bridge collapsed," I said.
"No!" he said. "I was surprised! I mean, this isn't some Third World country."
I was baffled. "What do you mean?" I asked. "It sounds to me like it was physics. Physics is the same everywhere."
He agreed, yes, it was physics.
When he left that night, I shook his hand good-bye. I liked him and I felt sorry that he felt so bad, so I said, "It wasn't your fault. You did what you could."
He gave me a slightly withering look and said, "Yeah, right, I feel so much better now."
I respect that. Here's a man honorable enough to feel sick about a shared failure of responsibility that killed thirteen people.