OCEAN CITY – The city’s response to the bridge malfunction last weekend was reviewed this week with the conclusion being officials followed the appropriate procedure.
On Tuesday afternoon, Ocean City Emergency Services Director Joe Theobald came before the Mayor and City Council to give an overview of the process that took place Saturday when the Route 50 drawbridge became stuck in the open position for five hours causing nightmare traffic backups.
The drawbridge opened at its scheduled opening of 2:55 on Saturday afternoon. At that time, a storm was approaching Ocean City, and the beaches had been cleared sending motorists out onto Coastal Highway.
“There are number of things that took place … the failure was both mechanical and electrical. A machinery support beam that is an I-beam of about 18 inches by 54 inches long had some section loss, which in plain term is it had rusting on it,” Theobald said. “That caused the beam to snap and twist out of alignment, which then caused the limit switch for the bridge that controls when the bridge is placed down and showing its closed and ready for traffic to fail. The bridge tender certainly understood the bridge was not seated properly because when they tried to lower it after its scheduled opening the western stand stayed approximately four feet up in the air.”
The Maryland State Highway Administration (SHA) was immediately contacted. SHA contacted its local electric subcontractor, who has worked on the bridge for 40 years.
“We were fortunate that he was in West Ocean City and he started the process of coming in,” Theobald said. “We were also very fortunate that we had our ‘Jack of all trades,’ David Cropper, who is the Deputy Fire Chief of the Volunteer Fire Company working at Station 2 that day. David did as David does, and stepped up to the plate and received permission to come over to the bridge carrying his bag of tools as he does.”
Theobald recognized it took some time to get the process of repairing the bridge going as traffic immediately began to back up at all entrance and exit points of town.
“The state electrician was transferred over by DNR by boat because traffic had already come to a grid-lock stand still. He got there around 4 p.m., and it then took time to isolate the problem. That was that period of time when everybody was wondering what was going on,” Theobald said. “Normally, when we have some kind of failure with the stand, it is corrected in short order because it is usually electrical. … when they went into the bowels of the bridge that is where they found the beam was compromised.”
The head engineer at SHA Office of Structures was then contacted who immediately dispatched a team out of the Baltimore region with the appropriate supplies and a subcontractor of welders who arrived at about 1 a.m. to make repairs.
In the meantime, around 8 p.m., the decision was made to hand crank the broken span into the closed position to begin allowing vehicles to access the bridge in and out of the resort.
“They were fortunate that they were able to have the bridge seated one more time. That was a good thing because we looked at it as a public safety issue more with vehicular traffic than the marine traffic,” Theobald said. “We talked to Coast Guard Sector Baltimore who understood our concerns and had no problem with it [drawbridge] remaining closed. Ocean City’s Coast Guard also had no problem with it remaining closed.”
According to Theobald, the bridge was inspected on Friday knowing the White Marlin Open was starting in less than two weeks and the problem was unanticipated.
“They were as proactive as possible but unfortunately sometimes things become compromised. The bridge has some years in it. We don’t want to see it happen at 3 p.m. on a Saturday afternoon but it did,” he said, “The good news is we had very few incidents that we had to respond to … People have to look at it in perspective. During an evacuation or any other incident that may take place, we could lose one of our bridges … I commend the police department and fire department. Everybody had a plan in place to operate overnight.”
Councilman Brent Ashley pointed out both Mayor Rick Meehan and City Manager David Recor were out of town Saturday, but city staff stepped up.
“I saw the town continue to function as normally, which I think is a tribute to our employees. Everything was grid locked, but there was no let down in city services or responses, so I think the employees deserve kudos for that. It shows what our employees can do in an emergency,” Ashley said.
Councilman Dennis Dare took the opportunity to point out the town has been working diligently with SHA and Worcester County in moving the concept of dualizing Route 90 forward.
“During Hurricane Sandy, the Route 50 Bridge was closed due to flooding, and this is another example of how we need more capacity at critical times to get people in and out of Ocean City,” Dare said. “Not just the public but also emergency vehicles. The dualization of 90, the right-of-way is there it is just a matter of funding a design and starting the process down the road.”
Ocean City has formally requested the dualization of Route 90 be placed in front of the Route 50 Bridge on the county’s infrastructure priority list. Currently, Route 113 remains the top priority from the state’s perspective followed by Route 589, the Route 50 Bridge and Route 90.