Originally created 05/23/00

Bridge accident shakes local victims



Terrell Kearse froze when the concrete overpass moved beneath his feet on the way back to his car after Saturday night's Winston all-star stock car race in Concord, N.C.

"My first instinct was thinking, `This isn't right,' " the North Augusta man said Monday from his hospital bed in Charlotte. "Then I saw chunks of concrete - I mean huge chunks of concrete - flying up at me."

But he doesn't remember much else about the 17-foot fall that dumped more than 100 people onto the southbound lane of U.S. Highway 29 when an 80-foot section of the pedestrian bridge crumpled.

Mr. Kearse, 55, landed on his feet and broke both legs in the plunge to the pavement. He also jarred his back.

Looking back on surgery on his legs Sunday, and looking ahead to more surgery today to put metal screws and plates in the broken limbs, he said parts of the terrifying experience are hazy now. "I think I was in shock. I was cold and shaking. A man who said he was a doctor came and stayed with me until I could be put on an ambulance."

Mr. Kearse was listed in fair condition Monday at Carolinas Medical Center, one of 53 people still hospitalized - three of them in critical condition - from among the 107 injured. His wife, Debbie, 53, and daughter-in-law, Pam, 25, were treated in the emergency room and released. Debbie Kearse's injuries were minor. Pam Kearse broke her ankle.

Michael Kearse, 22, was walking several feet behind his wife and parents when the bridge collapsed. "I had gotten caught up in the shuffle of the crowd," he said. "I had just stepped onto the bridge when I felt a rumble and saw the fence line fall."

That was the cage enclosure along the sides of the walkway.

"People in front of me turned around and started running. They were in a panic. They said the bridge was falling. I turned back too."

Down on the highway below, he found his family, still together. His dad was lying on his back in pain.

It wasn't like the movies with screaming chaos. Instead, people seemed to be in shock, he said.

It got worse when the injured were separated from those who were not. He saw his parents taken away in an ambulance but didn't know his wife also had gone for emergency treatment.

"Nobody told me anything," he said. "I looked for her for three or four hours, but I didn't know she was at the hospital until my mom had me paged and I talked to her on the telephone."

Speedway personnel took him to Carolinas Medical Center. On Sunday, a Charlotte limousine driver who'd volunteered to help drove the Kearses back to the speedway to get their car.

Terrell Kearse remained behind in the hospital, where "people have been just super wonderful." He didn't know how long he'd be there. Doctors still didn't know what his back injury will entail.

One thing was certain: "I've been a race fan as long as I can remember, but that was my last one," he said.

And Michael Kearse, who's been going to races with his dad all his life, said he's probably going to sell his tickets to the upcoming Daytona 500.

Up until the accident after Saturday's race, it had been a good night. The Kearses always pull for Earnhardts, and Dale Jr. won the Winston. His dad came in third.

In Concord, North Carolina state engineers Monday said a second walkway at Lowe's Motor Speedway has a rust spot and ordered it closed until they learn why the track's other pedestrian bridge collapsed only five years after construction.

Corrosion is believed by state investigators to be the cause of the first walkway's failure.

Don Idol, an assistant bridge inspection engineer with the state transportation department, said Monday the collapsed walkway bristled with rusted, half-inch steel cables, which wouldn't have been visible when it was intact. Several 3-foot cracks are visible beneath three remaining spans of the ruined bridge, another sign of possible corrosion, he said.

The second bridge's rust spot, described as no bigger than a nickel and the only visual sign of possible trouble, was enough to lead to its indefinite closure, said Benton Payne, division engineer for the state Department of Transportation.

Investigators said moisture on the steel cables may be the explanation for corrosion, but they were unsure how water could have gotten into the concrete.

"That's the $64,000 question," Mr. Payne said.

That's now up to the speedway to figure out. Because it owns the walkway, no official agency is overseeing the investigation, and the track's engineers are trying to determine what went wrong.

Nick Graf, division administrator in Raleigh for the Federal Highway Administration, said his agency also is looking into the collapse.

The state periodically inspected the walkway as it was being built and signed off on it, but not before recommending that the speedway use stronger concrete sections.

The speedway ignored the recommendation and put in 100- pounds-per-square-foot concrete sections that met federal and state guidelines.

State investigators said Monday they didn't believe weight was a factor in the collapse.

An Associated Press report was used in this article.

Reach Margaret N. O'Shea at (803) 279-6895 or scbureau@augustachronicle.com.