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At least 3 people sent to hospital in Willits bypass bridge collapse (w/video)

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Two workers were briefly trapped and at least three people sent to the hospital Thursday when part of the Highway 101 bypass bridge under construction in Willits collapsed, Caltrans officials and emergency personnel said.

The collapse turned an approximately 150-foot section of bridge into a giant pile of sticks and steel and dumped wet concrete — which is toxic to fish — into a stream.

The collapsed bridge is part of the estimated $275 million bypass Caltrans is constructing to re-route Highway 101 around Willits.

Workers were pouring concrete into a section of falsework, which is the frame of the bypass, at East Valley Street sometime after 2 p.m. when the bridge section collapsed, Caltrans spokesman Phil Frisbie Jr. said. There was conflicting information about the number of injuries and where the people were standing when the bridge collapsed. Frisbie said the contractor — Flatiron Construction — reported three injured workers. CHP spokesman Kylar Adams said there were five people injured.

One of two workers trapped in the debris was able to free himself, said Little Lake Volunteer Fire Department Chief Carl Magann. The worker who suffered major injuries had to be extricated by fire and construction crews and was airlifted to an out-of-county hospital, he said.

Two of the workers suffered moderate injuries and two had only minor injuries, Adams said.

A search was conducted to ensure everyone on the site was accounted for, he said.

The collapse did not happen in an area accessible to the public, Frisbie said. The bypass runs largely east of town and Highway 101.

The injured workers were employed by Flatiron, a Colorado-based infrastructure company. A Flatiron spokeswoman referred questions to Caltrans.

Frisbie said Caltrans safety officers and engineers were heading to the site and would be on scene by Friday to investigate. Construction work on the rest of the collapsed bridge was halted but work continued in other bypass construction zones to the north and south on Thursday.

Frisbie said he suspects that state Occupational Safety and Health Administration officials will shut down work on all the bridges until the cause of the collapse is known.

A Cal OSHA official confirmed investigators from Sacramento would visit the site Friday.

“Cal OSHA is still gathering information,” spokesman Peter Melton said. “We’ll have some more answers tomorrow.”

State Fish and Wildlife officials will be studying the effects of the concrete spill on creeks in the construction zone. The lime in wet concrete is alkaline, thus toxic to aquatic life, said Fish and Wildlife Warden Steve White. Water samples were gathered Thursday and a dam was being built on Haehl Creek to limit contamination. The creek’s water will be routed to nearby Baechtal Creek so that it bypasses the contaminated area and limits the damage, White said. He said he had not observed any fish deaths so far, but he was unable to access all of Haehl Creek on Thursday because of thick underbrush. Biologists will be searching the waterways for dead fish Friday, he said.

The 5.9-mile bypass has been beset by lengthy delays and cost overruns. The project, already two years behind schedule, is 50 percent complete. Lawsuits and protests by opponents, who say the project is unnecessary and damaging to the environment, have contributed to the delay.

Staff Writer Matt Brown contributed to this report. You can reach Staff Writer Glenda Anderson at 462-6473 or glenda.anderson@pressdemocrat.com. You can reach Staff Writer Julie Johnson at 521-5220 or julie.johnson@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @jjpressdem.

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