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Army Vows to Bridge Balkan River Today : Peacekeepers: Engineers move pontoons into place to clear the way for delayed U.S. deployment in Bosnia.

December 30, 1995|NORA ZAMICHOW | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ZUPANJA, Croatia — Brushing aside deteriorating weather conditions and flood waters nearing a 100-year high, U.S. Army engineers Friday ended days of frustration and began spanning the fast-moving Sava River with a temporary bridge.

The span, more than three football fields in length, is expected to be completed today. If it is, the first U.S. Army truck and troop convoys will begin rolling over the river into Bosnia almost immediately.

Aside from being the single biggest engineering challenge of the NATO-led deployment of peacekeepers, getting the bridge in place is a crucial prerequisite to moving large-scale U.S. forces into Bosnia-Herzegovina to begin policing the peace accords negotiated last month in Dayton, Ohio. Assembly of the bridge's aluminum components began Friday after the commander of the U.S. forces here, Maj. Gen. William L. Nash, marched atop the remains of a bombed-out bridge nearby and announced: "I will cross the river tomorrow."

Only the day before, the Sava had swept into tent camps, causing the evacuation of several hundred troops and forcing 140 soldiers to wade through icy, waist-deep water. Many expected that setback to add several more days to the already delayed construction timetable.

But Nash had spoken, and the message was clear: Make it happen. No mistakes, no excuses. Then he inhaled deeply on his cigar.

Behind him, the flooded Sava pooled in an inlet almost as wide as the river itself, and soldiers struggled to pull Humvees and trucks from three feet of water.

Since the Army's arrival in this tiny, frostbitten town meant to be the United States' gateway into Bosnia for the peacekeeping mission, officials have maintained that they would erect a bridge and cross the Sava River in a methodical fashion. They hedged about dates, reluctant to commit to one.

Then Friday, as snow flurries pelted down from gray skies, the word was put out: U.S. troops would drive over the bridge they erected today, after some soldiers possibly work through the night to get ready.

"The Army has been crossing rivers for 218 years; this is no exception," said Brig. Gen. James P. O'Neal, who is directly beneath Nash in the chain of command for Task Force Eagle, the U.S. component of the NATO-led mission. "That river is not worth one single soldier's life. We are going to do this safely and deliberately."

*

When the Army does cross the Sava River, it will use a so-called pontoon ribbon bridge, stretching across the more than 300 yards of unpredictable river. Although U.S. soldiers have used this bridge in training settings, this will be one of the largest ribbon bridges used in an actual mission since the Korean War.

To get troops across using this bridge, Army officials revised their plans, scaling down time-consuming aspects and increasing efficiency:

* Instead of erecting towers and setting up cables that would have reached 1,000 feet across the river to hold the pontoon bridge in place, the troops were to dispatch powerful boats in the swift-flowing water to help secure the bridge.

* With the river nearing an all-time high-water mark, Army officials will install a longer bridge than first intended. They will also have to construct a second bridge to cover the more than 250-yard inlet created by the flooding.

* With the riverbanks overflowing, helicopter pilots lifted pontoon sections one by one and deposited them in the Sava River on Friday afternoon. Army officials had intended to use trucks to drop sections of the bridge into the water but were unable to reach the river because of the flooding.

When Army officials first arrived in Zupanja two weeks ago, they immediately set about preparing the river to accommodate a bridge. A team of about 20 Navy SEALs showed up to ensure that the river hosted no underwater hazards, such as mines or obstructions. Combat engineers spent days regrading and creating a road on the riverbanks, packing down gravel to firm up what had been a muddy bog on a too-steep bank.

But much of this painstaking work was submerged under water after a levee broke from the weight of the recent rain and snow.

In setting up the bridge, U.S. officials will create both a symbolic land link and a strategic one. The ribbon bridge will take the place of a road bridge blown up three years ago. Since the destruction of the bridge, which each side blames on the other, a ferry has served as the sole means of travel here between Croatia and Bosnia.

Ribbon bridges, in use since the early 1970s, are like huge aluminum tinkertoys. Each section, or bay, is folded into four components. When the bay is placed in the water it opens up, unfolding into a flat piece 22 feet long and 26 feet wide. The bays are then linked together, forming an undulating bridge that sways with the current and sinks slightly with the load of a heavy armored tank.

The bridges, considered a technological improvement over early pontoon bridges, are also designed to be relatively quick to set up.

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