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DOT: Bridge safety gates not to blame in accident

Investigators await the results of a blood test on a fired bridge tender and another employee's action is under review after a tourist drove over the open span on Friday.

By AMY WIMMER

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 24, 2000


ST. PETE BEACH -- A drawbridge rising, that minutes-long inconvenience which beach commuters endure daily, typically works like this:

The bridge tender receives radio contact from a boat requesting an opening. The tender honks the bridge horn, the U.S. Coast Guard signal for an opening bridge.

Traffic signals change from green to yellow, hold at yellow for five seconds, then change to red. Two traffic gates lower, blocking traffic coming onto the bridge. The bridge tender checks for pedestrians and vehicles, then lowers the two other traffic gates in the offbound lanes.

The tender then releases the pins that hold together the two halves of the bridge.

About 9 p.m. Friday, the drawbridge opening was anything but typical. A Pinellas Bayway bridge tender lifted the bridge without lowering the gates to oncoming traffic or even turning the green light to yellow or red.

The bridge sections rose eight to 10 feet without warning, sending a 21-year-old tourist from Illinois over the gap and onto the other span in Dukes of Hazzard fashion.

While investigators wait for the outcome of blood tests on the bridge tender, who may have been intoxicated when he lifted the bridge without lowering the traffic gates, the Department of Transportation said Tuesday that a problematic gate on the Bayway Bridge played no role in the incident.

Meanwhile, the company that operates the bridge for the DOT defended its method for screening bridge tenders and said it is also looking into whether another employee might have known about the condition of the bridge tender, Michael David Montgomery.

"I don't really know where to start with this one here," said Tom Sperring, chief executive officer of C&S Building Maintenance, which has contracts to run about 25 Department of Transportation bridges in seven Florida counties. The company has operated Pinellas bridges for nine years, Sperring said. "I don't call any accident minor and, of course, we take the motoring public very seriously on all of these bridges -- not just here, but all over the state of Florida."

A half-bottle of vodka was found in the tower where Montgomery, 40, worked as a bridge tender. He was arrested for culpable negligence, and the Florida Highway Patrol is awaiting results of his blood test.

Montgomery was terminated at the scene by his immediate supervisor, Mark Smith. Sperring said another C&S employee, the bridge tender who worked the shift before Montgomery, is also the subject of an internal investigation.

According to company policy, Sperring said, that tender should have remained at the bridge if he noticed any strange behavior when Montgomery relieved him. Sperring was unsure how long Montgomery had been on duty when the accident occurred. Shifts in the bridge booth last eight hours.

When Sperring's supervisor, Mark Smith, arrived at the scene about 45 minutes after the incident, he described Montgomery's speech as slurred and his eyes as bloodshot.

Smith's account of the problem also pointed out that some of the traffic gates on the bridge were being operated manually. DOT spokeswoman Kris Carson said Tuesday that the gate in question kept cars from maneuvering around the primary safety gates and onto the bridge.

The gates that block cars from entering the bridge are functioning properly, Carson said.

That means that according to DOT, a problematic gate did not contribute to allowing Maurine Cody, the driver who flew over the bridge gap, to drive onto the rising bridge. Cody said she suffered a fractured vertebrae in the accident.

"There's no problem with them operating manually," another DOT spokeswoman, Marian Pscion, said. "There's a procedure to go through. The bridge tenders are all trained to do that."

Bridge tenders go through a criminal background check and also take a DOT test and receive other training. They must have adequate hearing and vision, as well as pass some physical tests.

Montgomery was arrested twice in the past four years for driving under the influence, but it was unclear whether those arrests occurred before or after he was hired by C&S. Smith, Montgomery's supervisor, would not comment on how long Montgomery had worked for the company.

He said DOT instructed him not to talk to the media, and DOT spokespeople did not know details of Montgomery's personnel background.

Similar accidents on drawbridges -- including a 1992 accident in Miami that sent two cars tumbling over the edge of the Biscayne Bay drawbridge -- have been caused when a bridge went up but traffic gates never went down.

In one such accident, at the Capital Beltway in Washington, D.C., in 1991, a semi-trailer truck slammed into a car that stopped for the lifting drawbridge, killing the driver of the car.

* * *

- Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.

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