FORT HUNTER, N.Y. — Several cars and a tractor-trailer rig plunged 80 feet into raging floodwaters Sunday morning when a 250-foot span of the New York State Thruway collapsed.
High swirling waters prevented divers from beginning rescue operations, and late Sunday officials said that they did not know how many people had been killed or injured in the accident, which occurred at a bridge over the Schoharie Creek, about 40 miles northwest of Albany, near Amsterdam.
Witnesses reported seeing at least four cars and the tractor-trailer fall into the water, but by nightfall only one car and the cab of the truck had been spotted. A search for victims was to continue today when the waters were expected to recede.
"Everyone is assumed to have perished," Montgomery County Sheriff Ron Emery said.
"It was impossible to try to save anybody. The waters were just too fast. There were 30-foot logs coming right down that river, slamming against the pillars of the bridge so hard that it made them shudder," said Fort Hunter Fire Commissioner Dennis Jablonski, one of the first rescuers to arrive.
Jablonski said there was "no possible way" anybody could have survived the disaster. But state police said helicopter searches for survivors, suspended at nightfall, would resume at dawn today. Rescue workers planned to spend the night monitoring the scene with floodlights.
State officials, calling it New York state's worst bridge accident in recent memory, immediately began investigating the cause of the accident.
Cuomo at Scene
"One could speculate that the force of the river is so extraordinary that it worked some special power on the base of the piers and brought them down, but we don't know," said New York Gov. Mario M. Cuomo, who was flown to the scene by helicopter in the afternoon.
Maj. Edward Vanderwall of the New York State Police told reporters that the thruway was immediately sealed off after the westbound lane of the four-lane bridge collapsed at 10:48 a.m. Sunday after the crumbling of supporting concrete pilings. The eastbound lane collapsed half an hour later. Eventually 1,000 feet of highway fell away.
"It looks as if somebody took a scissors on each side and cut right through," said Cuomo's director of state operations, Henrik Dullea, who was at the scene with the governor. As they watched from the bank near the bridge, a 10-foot concrete pillar that had supported the center of the span collapsed, and it was almost immediately swallowed up by the whitecaps of the creek, Dullea said.
'Scene From Movies'
Bill Weller, an assistant fire chief who witnessed the collapse from a nearby bridge, was quoted by colleagues as saying the accident resembled "a scene from the movies when a vehicle jumps off a canyon." He said that he saw "two or three automobiles" dropping from the bridge.
There were conflicting reports about the number of cars on the bridge at the time of the collapse, with some witnesses saying as many as five vehicles could have fallen into the water. Firefighters reported seeing the exhaust pipe of the tractor-trailer, the gasoline tank and tires of a small car and part of a Cadillac with out-of-state registration plates sticking out of the water.
The rushing waters were caused by heavy rains that forced hundreds of people across the Northeast to evacuate their homes. Thousands more were left without electricity as snow, wind and rain brought down power lines.
Near the Schoharie bridge on the thruway, firefighters began evacuating inhabitants from nearby villages by raft Sunday morning. Local residents reported spotting a wide variety of debris--including refrigerators, picnic tables and parts of a cabin--floating down the Schoharie Creek, which, in normal times, is shallow enough to wade in.
"We have yearly floodings of the creek but this year is a lot worse," said Jason Downing of the Fort Hunter Fire Department.
Regarded as Safe Road
Vanderwall told reporters that, until Sunday's collapse, the thruway had been "one of the safest roads in the country in terms of accident statistics and fatalities."
Vanderwall said the bridge, which was built in 1956 and carries an average of 15,000 vehicles a day, was examined earlier Sunday when two smaller bridges over the creek were closed by flooding. He said that he had considered closing the larger bridge, but he added that "there was no reason to."
Before Sunday's inspection, the bridge was last examined in April, 1986, and was rated in good condition, according to Al Levine, executive director of the Thruway Authority. The last maintenance work was performed on the structure in 1981-82, when the road was resurfaced and the girder strength was checked, Levine said.