GRIDLOCK DESTIN: Traffic snarled after barge crashes into Brooks Bridge

Staff reports

FORT WALTON BEACH — A barge with a crane on it crashed into the west side of the Brooks Bridge Wednesday afternoon, damaging parts of the bridge and rupturing the main water line to Okaloosa Island.

The 3:15 p.m. crash took down several feet of concrete guard rail and cracked the water pipes that run under the bridge.

Concrete from the bridge and water from the pipes started pouring down into the Santa Rosa Sound.

The bridge was immediately closed to traffic, including pedestrian, and was still shut down early Wednesday evening. Department of Transportation engineers are assessing any structural damage to determine when the bridge can be reopened.

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The bridge is the main connector between Fort Walton Beach and Destin. Traffic was rerouted to the Mid-Bay Bridge in Niceville.

Tolls on the bridge were temporarily lifted until traffic clears up, according to the DOT.

The Coast Guard had also closed the immediate area to boats.

No injuries or damage to any vehicles were reported, said Randy McDaniel, emergency management director for Okaloosa County.

Two tugboats on either side of the barge were pushing it under the bridge when the crash occurred, according to Colton Shipp who witnessed it.

When the crane struck the bridge, the front of the barge was lifted about 15 to 20 feet out of the water, he added.

Chris and John Wolf also witnessed the crash while fishing from a pier under the bridge.

“Oh my God, the crane is going to hit the bridge,” John Wolf remembered saying.

The barge kept going forward for about 15 seconds after the crash, they said. The crane tipped back so far that it touched the barge behind it.

“I really thought the crane was going to fall back and into the water,” Chris said.

They said it took about 15 seconds for the barge to stop and reverse, but by that time concrete rails and water had started pouring down.

"It just took him forever to stop and slow down," John said.

DOT engineers arrived a couple hours after the crash.

"We'll have a better idea what is going on with the bridge after we get an assessment," said Ian Satter, a spokesman for the DOT.

The Okaloosa County Water and Sewer department was also still trying to get a handle on the damage.

The water valve was closed shortly after the crash.

“We don't know how bad the leaks are in the pipes," said Okaloosa County Water and Sewer Director Jeff Littrell. “We have a 16-inch water main that runs across the bridge. That is the water supply to Okaloosa Island.”

Littrell said he is monitoring the water levels in the island's three water tanks and the system has not lost pressure.

"We've got 900,000 gallons of storage we can rely on. … We may need to close valves on the other side of the bridge," Littrell said, adding that he's sent workers through Niceville to reach Okaloosa Island because Brooks Bridge is closed."

Although the water lines ruptured, the gas lines running underwater along the bridge were not damaged, said Eddie Springle, vice president of marketing for Okaloosa Gas.

By Wednesday evening, officials were urging Okaloosa Island residents to conserve water if possible.

All Okaloosa County School buses were across the bridge before the crash, according to Okaloosa County Superintendent Mary Beth Jackson.

Transportation officials were working on alternative routes for Thursday, if needed, she said.

Thursday is the last day of school before students go on spring break so Jackson hopes they can keep inconveniences for families at a minimum.

"We'll just take it one day at a time," she said. "We'll have time over spring break to really figure it out."

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