Debris from deadly Ohio highway overpass collapse being removed

One man, working at the scene of the collapse late Monday night, was killed when the section of overpass roadway fell on the highway below.

Liz Dufour, The Cincinnati Enquirer/AP
An early morning look of the aftermath of the bridge collapse on Interstate 75, Tuesday, Jan. 20, 2015 in Cincinnati, Ohio. The collapse killed a worker and injured a truck driver. The Ohio Department of Transportation said the busy artery through downtown Cincinnati will be closed at least two to three days.

Tons of concrete and steel covered the southbound lanes of a major Cincinnati artery Tuesday after an overpass collapse during demolition work left one worker dead, a tractor-trailer driver injured and police considering what the potential toll might have been had the accident occurred amid heavy traffic.

The removal of debris from Interstate 75 began Tuesday afternoon and was expected to take 24 to 48 hours. Ohio transportation authorities will then assess the pavement where the section of overpass deck landed Monday night with what a resident described as an earth-shaking thud. The Ohio Department of Transportation said it's difficult to predict how long pavement repairs might take without seeing the damage.

Cincinnati authorities said casualties could have been much higher had the accident occurred at a busy time on the interstate that carries more than 178,000 vehicles a day through the area some five miles north of the Ohio River.

"The situation could have been significantly worse," Cincinnati Police Chief Jeffrey Blackwell said Tuesday. "It's just timing that we only had one fatality."

Authorities identified the worker who was killed as Brandon William Carl, 35, of Augusta, Kentucky. The Hamilton County coroner's office will do an autopsy to determine cause of death; Cincinnati fire officials said the body was recovered from rubble with the help of air bags and special equipment early Tuesday morning, about four hours after the accident.

The name of the tractor-trailer driver wasn't released immediately. He was taken to a hospital with what were described as minor injuries. His truck slammed into the overpass as the debris landed.

"The big-rig driver is very lucky," Blackwell said. "In a matter of seconds his fate would have probably been different."

Transportation officials said heavy equipment was being used to separate the concrete deck from structural steel when the span fell. Gary Middleton, acting deputy director of the Ohio transportation department's southwest Ohio district, said it was a "routine operation" being carried out by a major contractor.

Westerville, Ohio-based Kokosing Construction was dong the demolition under a nearly $91 million contract for a three-year project meant to improve traffic capacity and safety in a busy stretch of I-75.

"I would say there any number of possibilities," Middleton said of the accident's cause. "At this point it's under investigation."

The overpass once carried a ramp that had been a left-hand exit from northbound I-75 and carried traffic over the southbound lanes to Hopple Street. It was replaced by a new ramp that exits to the right from northbound 75 near the University of Cincinnati.

Middleton said his experience has been that Kokosing is a "very safety-conscious" contractor with high ratings.

The company didn't immediately respond to messages Tuesday.

The firm is responsible for debris cleanup and could be assessed damages by the state for forcing lane closures and other work, Middleton said. Kokosing also could face fines and other disciplinary action by the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which was investigating the work-related death.

Suburban commuters to downtown Tuesday morning were diverted to Interstate 71 south, where traffic slowed through the morning. Motorists headed to Kentucky could take the Interstate 275 loop around the city. Southbound side streets also were congested into the afternoon.

The construction project had been scheduled for completion in June 2016. Planned northbound I-75 closures for work Tuesday night were postponed.

A nearby resident said the collapse rattled his house.

"Just heard a thud, and the house shook," Casey Wright told WLWT-TV. "It felt like an earthquake. I'm sure the whole neighborhood felt it."

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