Heavy scrapes mar the cement skin of the Hood River Bridge where an unidentified vessel struck the northeast pier in early October.
The Port of Hood River is assessing damages, and trying to pinpoint exactly when the impact occurred and what kind of ship did the scraping. In the meantime, the U.S. Coast Guard has issued a waiver allowing the port to hold off on any bridge lifts until port engineers complete their analysis, which will extend into next week at the least.
Port staff are trying to discern if the bridge suffered any damage to its lift span or electrical system in the jolt of impact.
Pedestrian and freight traffic across the bridge between Hood River and White Salmon is unaffected for the time being, said Genevieve Scholl, port communications and special projects manager.
The origin of the twin gashes — which mark the cement support pillar at two spots — remains fuzzy.
The port first heard reports of the lights fizzling out on the north tower of the bridge around Oct. 7, but it wasn’t until last Wednesday that Port Commissioner Jon Davies heard word from a friend about a large scrape on the pier.
The port’s engineers, HDR Inc., are still investigating if the disturbance to the lights was related to the vessel’s impact with the north pier. Davies reported the damage to the port Monday, and staff then alerted the U.S. Coast Guard.
The Coast Guard serves in two capacities, carried out by respective departments: management of the bridge and its lift span, and investigating the cause.
“We’re doing a preliminary marine causality investigation,” said Lt. Ben Robinson, chief of investigations for the U.S. Coast Guard’s Portland branch. “At this point, there’s not a whole lot to take action (on).”
Robinson said in similar cases there is a window of time when the Coast Guard can retrace a scene and study radio calls and other evidence — but that period has passed. He compared searching for the boat and driver who hit the bridge in the first half of October to a police officer “going door to door” looking for a suspect.
“With a bridge strike we treat it as an accident investigation,” Robinson said.
The vessel that “shaved” the concrete off the north pier was most likely a large ship and definitely not a ski boat, Davies said.
“It had to be something big — it was well above the water level,” said Davies.
Davies described the northeast impact point as a “rub” or “smear” in the concrete, about three feet by six feet in size, and roughly a half-inch deep. There was also a gash that revealed rubble and discolored concrete, he said.
The damage is visible from the Oregon shore, especially from a vantage point on the Spit.
According to photos provided by the port, two impact points are visible — one on the north pier facing the Hood River Waterfront, and another along the west face of the same pillar. One point is scratched horizontally, the other vertically. Both rest well above the highest point of the waterline.
Scholl said the general impression from engineers is that one vessel, which was headed westbound under the bridge, caused both scrapes.
Port engineers studied the scene from water level Wednesday and Thursday, and are preparing to rappel down from the height of the bridge next week for a closer look, said Port Executive director Michael McElwee.
The inspection will focus on the concrete impact area and an engineering evaluation of the lift span. Far from a mere eyesore, port and Coast Guard officials are attempting to discern if the port’s electrical or lift span machinery were shaken out of place by the damage.
“If it shook the lift span, then that’s a problem,” Davies said.
Davies said the port undergoes a great deal of ongoing maintenance work on the bridge but there are two unforeseen disasters they can’t prepare for: earthquakes or a full-on barge impact, which would shut down the bridge entirely.
The Coast Guard’s waiver remains in place at the bridge, so no bridge lifts will be conducted over the weekend. Barges pass daily under the bridge, most bearing wheat and grain products from around the West, but they won’t be affected by the static span, which is higher than a typical commercial ship, said Scholl.
“Currently we are advising (the) U.S. Coast Guard that we want to keep the lift span down until engineering analysis is done and results are known,” said McElwee.