Lessons from the US Bridge Collapse

by Bayo Olupohunda

The reported sudden collapse of a major bridge across the Mississippi River in Minneapolis in the state of Minnesota in the United States of America on Wednesday 1st Of August 2007 brings home to our consciousness the stark reality of the suspected state of decay of our bridges and other public utilities in Nigeria.

According to reports, it was like a script carved out of a Hollywood horror movie when suddenly, the bridge which had hitherto not shown any sign of being under distress went down- pillars, steel and concrete, plunging down motorists into the cold deep waters of the Mississippi river. At the time of writing this article, rescue effort is still ongoing with five bodies recovered and many more trapped under cars, concrete and pillars in the underbelly of the river.

The authorities in the US have characteristically responded with their trademark swiftness which under scores the value they place on human life and disaster management. Professional divers are working twenty four hours round the clock with state –of- the- art equipment to fish out victims of this unfortunate incident. The contention is that at least if they cannot rescue those trapped in the river alive they will at best get their bodies to be buried decently by their families. (I shuddered if an incident like this happens in Nigeria- disaster management is not one of our many strengths!). Now questions are being asked. How can this bridge collapse happen in the United States? Couldn’t it have been prevented? Questions, Questions. But investigation has shown that fatigue cracking was not expected for the remaining life of the bridge! So what went wrong?

This bridge collapse in the US has again jolted us from our slumber and wakened us to the sad reality that bridges can as a matter of fact cave in. Indeed, sometime in 2006, it was rumoured that the Third Mainland Bridge which connects the Mainland Lagos and the Island had collapsed. This caused some panic among the residents of this city as families made effort to contact their members who daily use this ever busy bridge.

Bridges have become a part of our daily lives at least in Lagos and other parts of the country. The state of the bridges in Lagos has recently come under public scrutiny. Before the rumored Third Mainland Bridge collapse, commuters on the bridge had experienced and are still experiencing vibrations and depressions on the approach to the Adeniji end of the bridge. I have personally experienced this heart wrenching vibrations on my commuting on this all important bridge. Yet we have been told that the bridge is solid and no cause for alarm. There is indeed a cause for alarm. According to reports, the Minneapolis Bridge that collapsed is not due for overhauling until 2020. How come it caved in? But our own Third Mainland Bridge is vibrating and some parts are severely depressed and yet it got a pass mark. Please save us this deceit. How come at the entrance to this bridge from the outer Marina, Awolowo Road and Iyana Oworo there is a warning notice for heavy duty trucks to take alternative routes? Government should please save us from any impending calamity resulting from bridge collapse. We ‘the people’ are already traumatized as we have enough tragedies to cope with. Imagine the Third Mainland Bridge caving in during those peak hours of 5pm and 9pm in the evening or 7am to 8.30am in the morning. I am talking of working week days in our dear Lagos God forbid!

Commuters on the many bridges that dotted this landscape of Lagos and other bridges across the country have different tales to tell. On the Eko Bridge, the pedestrian aluminum railings have been crudely severed off by fortune hunters who use them for household utensils. So you would have to have your head examined to use the pedestrian part of the bridge because any slip can cause you to be flung into the dark, deep waters of the lagoon.

How about the numerous pedestrian bridges across the city? Lagosians are now dangerously aware that it is better to make a suicidal dash across the Express Way than use the foot bridges where you can either been mugged or fall through the big holes to the waiting mouth of an oncoming vehicles below.

The story is the same all over the country. What is the state of the River Niger Bridge that serves as a conduit for travelers across the Niger? This bridge was built several years ago. What is the life span? I can authoritatively confirm that this bridge is an extension of the Onitsha Market. It is indeed called The Head Bridge Market. There are numerous potholes on the bridge. How about the Benue River Bridge? Is it any better? The problem is wide spread.

I propose a country-wide evaluation of our bridges. This is what the George Bush government has now recommended in the wake of the Minneapolis Bridge collapse. Unfortunately this is coming a shade too late. But it will be better late than never if this bridge inspection is conducted now in Nigeria. The authorities concerned through the Federal Government should act now before it is too late. The Third Mainland Bridge alone is used by every Nigerian working population that resides in Lagos. We cannot afford another disaster. Remember the Minneapolis Bridge did not give any sign it will give in. Our Third Mainland Bridge has given enough notice. The Yar’ ardua government recently gave a reassuring promise to make Lagos a reference point of what a commercial nerve centre should look like. The Lagos State Government should speed up effort on the proposed Fourth Mainland Bridge. It should open up more access road to decongest the Third Mainland Bridge.

The various foot bridges should also be strengthened and made safe for Nigerians living in Lagos. The time to act is now. We should avoid another Minneapolis disaster. The death toll is minimal but it would sure be more if it happens here for obvious reasons. A stitch in time saves nine.

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