What Goes Up Doesn’t Always Come Down

DOT workers complete repairs on the Sarah Mildred Long Bridge in Portsmouth, after the red-listed drawbridge got stuck in the open position. (Photos courtesy of the DOT)

DOT Workers Restore Bridge’s Functionality Despite Challenging Conditions

The Sarah Mildred Long Bridge, built in 1940, is one of three bridges linking New Hampshire to Maine. Rated first among NH’s red-listed bridges, the draw bridge malfunctioned on Wednesday, Jan. 23 and was out of service for the next four days. Bridge crew members from NH’s DOT worked doggedly to restore the bridge to full functionality in extreme weather and wretched working conditions.

Gate tenders sounded the alert at approximately 1:30 p.m. when the incident occurred. The gate tenders work at the bridge around the clock, poised to raise the bridge’s gate upon request. They operate the warning lights and the lifts to raise the bridge and allow ships passage. During summer months the gate is lifted on a regular schedule, but during the cold winter months, requests to raise the bridge are fairly infrequent.

Because the gate was stuck very close to the roadway, workers had to deal with cramped working conditions.

“Boats call the gate tenders to request to go through,” said SEA member Bob Spinney, the Bridge Construction Foreman, DOT.  “In cases when the bridge hasn’t been raised in a while, we will arrange for a test raise at a typically slow traffic time – much like starting a car that hasn’t been started in a while.”  Bob also likened it to “when you’ve been sitting in your recliner for several hours and then get up … you’re all stiff.  Well, that’s what happens to the bridge.”  So, the crew arranges for a “test raise” when the lifts have not been engaged in a while.

On Jan. 23, one of these occasional test raises took place and what went up didn’t come down.  Bob and the rest of Crew 15/12 immediately went into action.

When Bob and other DOT Bridge workers arrived on scene, the bridge was stuck at about a foot above the road.  It came out of alignment with its steel track, much like folding track doors on a bedroom closet. The tremendously large and heavy structure caused the steel beam supports on both sides to bend. The steel beam supports buckled and collapsed.

In addition to tight quarters and long hours, workers faced frigid temperatures as they were suspended over an icy river.

Since this was a first in the bridge’s 73-year history, Crew15/12 faced the incredible challenge of trying to figure out the repair process as they went along.  On the first night, they assessed and decided what they had to do and how they were going to do it.

Because the gate was stuck so close to the roadway, depending on which end you were on, there were only 12 to 20 inches to operate.  “You could just about turn on your side to work. It was especially difficult because so many workers were involved in the operation.  We were shoulder to shoulder; over and under each other,” said Bob.  “We also had the rigging, blocking, and jacking equipment in that cramped space – all the things we needed to get the job done safely while maneuvering 500- 600 pound pieces of steel into place.”

The repair team faced brutally cold conditions with bitter cold wind chills, an extremely confined work space, a rusty old bridge, and wearing life preservers and safety straps while suspended over frigid water with strong currents – the stuff of action movies!

There is no back-up crew, so these workers were on duty for long hours.  “It was really great teamwork,” said Bob.  “You were constantly seeing somebody tapping someone else on the shoulder and asking if they needed a break.”

“Commissioner Chris Clement was there on the first night and most of the time over the coming days.  He listened to what we had to say. He could quickly see that people could be in danger. Our safety was his main concern. He made sure that the crew had everything we needed at all times,” said Bob.  “We felt that he had our backs, which was important. And at no time did we ever feel pressured by the Commissioner or anyone else to get this thing done quickly.  It was a big job to do in awful conditions.”

Meanwhile, ships were lining up in the water on either side of the bridge waiting for the repairs to be finished so they could reach their destinations.  Several of the ships contained fuel oil, much needed due to the frigid temperatures. Companies including Sprague Oil and Irving Oil, were faced with the challenge of deciding whether to continue to await the repairs or to send the ships to Boston and then drive the oil up to NH.  There were a good number of stakeholders watching each step of the repair process, plus the media was out in force and Gov. Maggie Hassan paid a visit.

“The governor came.  I was doing some drilling at the time and I suddenly heard a voice up above that didn’t sound like the rest of the guys,” Bob laughed. “I looked up and she looked right at me and said ‘thank you.’ Her coming really meant a lot to the guys.”

“She shook our hands and seemed genuinely grateful that we were working on this problem,” said Bob Tombarelli, an electrician on the crew.

After days of grueling work, the tired and cold crew did a test lift that was successful.  They left the bridge up for an extended period of time to allow key ships to cross.  They still could not call the bridge safe for road traffic.  At 5:56 p.m. Sunday, after applying numerous tests designed to see if the bridge was safe for land vehicles, the bridge was declared fully operational.

And, what kept the crew at their task from dawn to dusk, day after day? “It’s what we do,” said Bob. “A lot of people and companies count on us. The bridge is vital to the road traffic, the oil terminals, the fishing companies and the tugboats. They count on us for their livelihood.”  He also said they knew they could fix it.  Not only did the crew fix the problem, they applied some improvements that will help ensure this doesn’t happen again, such as some tweaks to the computer software controls and other measures.

One crew member said, “It was nothing short of a miracle we were able to fix it in such a short time.”

Just goes to show, you can always depend on a public employee in the clutch!  Thank you, DOT.

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