Hundreds gather on river banks after bridge collapse

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A man drove north on Interstate 5 Thursday night. He crossed over the Skagit River just after 7 p.m. — and then he felt something.

“I felt the vibration,” he said. “I thought something was wrong with my car at first, to be honest.”

It felt the way a home near railroad tracks feels when a train goes by, he said.

Then, he looked in his rear-view mirror and noticed something missing: the bridge he’d just crossed.

But as he stood safe on dry land, the man didn’t want to discuss his experience. His gaze was locked on those whose headlights had been at his back just half an hour before.

“I’m here. They’re dead,” he said, not knowing yet whether the people still awaiting rescue were OK. “That’s what I’m more worried about.”

Fortunately, no one did die in the dramatic bridge collapse, but that was not clear to bystanders who continuously gathered at the river’s edge in the evening as word spread about what had occurred.

Matt Boespflug of Mount Vernon was nearby at Home Depot when the bridge collapsed.

“We heard it,” he said.

The power went out at Robin Sizemore’s Mount Vernon home at about 7:15 p.m. When it returned, she learned what happened from the unusually shaken voices coming through her HAM radio speakers.

“You normally don’t hear that kind of emotion on the radio,” she said.

When Sizemore made her way to the riverbank, she saw a pickup pulling a fifth-wheel truck backward off the intact section of the bridge. The trucks had been traveling north on I-5.

Many of the hundreds of people gathered on both banks of the Skagit River were on the phone, describing the scene and telling whoever was on the other end they were OK.

Others recounted how often they or family members drove the bridge, or how long ago.

“That’s why this is so creepy,” said Becky Strachila of Mount Vernon. “I drove on that bridge yesterday.”

“I’m on this bridge every single day,” said Eva Cantrell of Mount Vernon.

Michael Szajek was at Docking Bay 93, a comic and game store in Mount Vernon, when someone came in and announced what had happened. He ran to the river bank to see for himself.

“I’ve never seen anything like it,” Szajek said, gazing north across the rushing water at the people still stranded with their cars.

“You never expect things like this to happen,” he said.

When rescuers in a Skagit County Sheriff’s Office boat got the first person off the roof of an orange car and onto shore, the ever-growing crowd standing watch broke into applause.

Two others were rescued shortly after that. All were taken to area hospitals and were in satisfactory condition Thursday night.

Hours later, as that orange car sat half-submerged in the river, a windshield wiper was still going back and forth. Back and forth. Back and forth.

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