Fourteen people died last Memorial Day weekend when the Interstate 40 bridge over the Arkansas River crumpled beneath their vehicles after a pair of Mississippi barges slammed into the supports of the span at Webbers Falls.
Shortly afterward, the state Department of Transportation announced plans to study its bridges on navigation channels. The idea: to determine whether building barriers on the unprotected sides of bridges could save lives if someday another barge careens into a bridge.
The study is not finished.
The U.S. Coast Guard and American Waterways Operators also began studying bridge accidents shortly after The Oklahoman surveyed Coast Guard data last fall. That survey dispelled the assumptions that bridge builders have used for decades to build bridges -- that protective cells should be built primarily to protect from vessels traveling south or downstream -- called downbound by sailors. The Mississippi boat and barges were traveling upstream and hit the unprotected side of the bridge.
But that joint study is unfinished.
The National Transportation Safety Board immediately began investigating the accident and typically takes about a year to complete a report. The halfway point in the investigation is usually marked by release of a "public docket" that includes the accident facts uncovered in the investigation but no analysis or probable cause, board spokesman Keith Holloway said.
He said one focus of the investigation is whether the accident was affected by the bridge's lack of protective cells on the side that was hit, the side that remains unprotected after the bridge was rebuilt.
That investigation hasn't reached the halfway point.
Although the I-40 disaster near Webbers Falls was the nation's third-deadliest collapse, captains and crewmen who spend most of their lives on the boats are skeptical about the studies and any resulting changes.
"I don't know of any procedures that have been written, laws that have been changed or enforcement done by the Coast Guard that's more vigorous," said Capt. Bill Beacom, 62, of Sioux City, Iowa, who has made a living on the waterways for nearly 50 years.
Minding the wheelhouseWilliam Joe Dedmon, 62, said he'd had about 10 hours of sleep in 411/2 hours before the accident. In that period of time, he should have had 13.8 hours of sleep if he had gotten the regular 8 hours of sleep in a night.
Friday night, he drove 12 hours to Fort Smith, Ark., boarded the boat, then worked all day. He couldn't get to sleep until 11 p.m. Saturday. He got up about 5 a.m. Sunday, the morning of the accident. According to company attorneys, Dedmon said he blacked out May 26, sometime between about 7:20 a.m., when a crew member left him alone, and 7:48 a.m., when the bridge collapsed.
"Joe Dedmon's a crackerjack pilot. A great pilot," Beacom said.
"I think he fell asleep," he said.
Early that morning, Dedmon's boat was puttering up the familiar Arkansas River at about 6 to 7 mph. He was pushing the easiest of tows, called a bicycle tow, of two empty barges.
"It's an absolute piece of cake to run. You can relax, lean back in a chair," Beacom said.
Absent the adrenaline-pumping challenge of a difficult tow, a pilot can be lulled much like a tired driver on a familiar straight stretch of road, Beacom said.
Beacom said a pilot should recognize when he isn't up to piloting a boat and should get someone to stay in the wheelhouse with him or tie up the boat and sleep awhile, just as he's done.
"There's only one cure for fatigue. That's to go to bed," Beacom said. "When you don't have that option, that's when bridges fall."
Dedmon had a lookout in the wheelhouse who reportedly left him to go below to wake up other crew members. The lookout thought he had been gone maybe 20 minutes before the barge hit the bridge, though the transportation board cautioned that is only an estimated length of time. Whether the crew members were awake or asleep, likely they couldn't see that the boat was off course because most towboats are built so only those in the wheelhouse can see clearly outside.
"Probably nobody was watching," said Richard Block, secretary of the Gulf Coast Mariners Association in Louisiana and marine textbook author. "If he passed out, that boat could have been wandering all over the river."
Dedmon could have pressed a button and used the public address system to wake up the crew, a source close to the investigation said.
No inspectionsTowboats, like the one that knocked down part of the I-40 bridge, still are not inspected. That boat sped back to Mississippi right after the accident before state investigators could get a look at it, complained Drew Edmondson, Oklahoma's attorney general.
Block said the towing industry is powerful and has avoided mandatory Coast Guard inspections for five decades.
"None of these towing vessels, there are about 5,200 of them, get Coast Guard inspections," he said, adding that about a dozen offshore towing vessels get inspected. Block said the association would like to see yearly inspections conducted by an impartial third party, such as the Coast Guard.