All lanes of Richmond-San Rafael Bridge reopen after being shut down twice

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The Richmond-San Rafael Bridge was shut down twice Thursday during ongoing emergency safety inspections prompted by falling concrete chunks that crashed onto at least one vehicle and shut down the bridge spanning the San Pablo Bay.

As of 9 p.m. Thursday night, all lanes on the bridge were open. Caltrans workers installed metal plating on the bridge’s upper deck and completed emergency inspections, according to Caltrans spokesman Vince Jacala.

Sonoma resident Graham Edwards was the only person to reportedly suffer vehicle damage as a result of falling concrete, and his wife made the initial report to CHP about the danger on the bridge.

Edwards was driving his white Mercedes-Benz C300 across the bridge to the Oakland airport when he looked up and saw concrete chunks falling from the roof of the bridge. Edwards wasn’t sure whether to speed up or slow down to avoid the falling concrete, but he quickly tapped his brakes. An 8- or 9-inch chunk of concrete slammed into his car’s grill, damaging the front bumper.

“It was probably just that quick brake pump was what made the difference between it hitting my bumper and hitting my windshield,” he said. “For somebody who’s never actually been terrified in a car, I was pretty shaken.”

After determining his car had not suffered damage that required immediate attention, he continued on to the Oakland airport, only to discover his flight had been canceled, he said.

Edwards called his wife, who then reported the falling concrete to CHP at around 10:30 a.m., he said, and authorities closed the bridge nearly an hour later at 11:20 a.m.

CHP confirmed its first report of falling concrete came in at about 10:35 a.m. At about 2:45 p.m. one lane in each direction was briefly reopened, according to the CHP Marin Facebook page, but the bridge was closed again about 45 minutes later.

Officials again reopened one eastbound lane at about 4:30 p.m., and then all lanes in both directions shortly before 8 p.m.

A construction project is underway on the bridge, but it was too early to say whether that had caused the concrete chunks to fall, Jacala said during a mid-afternoon interview with reporters on the bridge.

“That’s part of our inspection so I don’t want to speculate,” Jacala said during the videotaped interview. “Obviously the bridge gets used a lot. There are heavy uses of the bridge, and just like anything if you use it a lot there’s a lot of wear and tear.”

Jake Mackenzie, chair of the Bay Area’s Metropolitan Transportation Commission, said early reports from Caltrans suggested no major damage to the infrastructure.

“This is a vehicle safety problem in terms of pieces of concrete, and not part of the structural integrity of the bridge,” he said. “Caltrans is meeting its responsibility and should have a better idea of maintenance soon.”

The bridge serves roughly 82,000 vehicles a day compared to about 120,000 across the Golden Gate Bridge, according to Caltrans data.

A sergeant who arrived on the bridge shortly after the first reports of falling concrete confirmed chunks “as small as pebbles and as large as footballs” were falling from the top westbound span onto the lower eastbound lanes, CHP spokesman Officer Andrew Barclay said.

A total shutdown was ordered about 11:42 a.m., and officials began turning drivers back and clearing traffic from the bridge. The debris stopped falling once traffic was totally clear of the upper deck, allowing officers to funnel all westbound traffic around a small debris field and off the bridge, according to the officer.

UC Berkeley doctoral student Rebecca Hachmyer, 37, of Petaluma, ran right into the middle of the sudden gridlock on her way east for an afternoon research group session. Hachmyer said she and many others turned off their cars during the hourlong standstill when she began witnessing cars using the furthest right lane to try to exit by backing up or turning around and driving west in the eastbound lanes.

“We just sat and sat and sat,” Hachmyer said. “Then people started zooming into that third lane. I just sort of rolled my eyes at folks trying to beat the traffic. With them jamming it up, it removed what I thought would be the best way to do an orderly evacuation if we had to turn around and exit the bridge the wrong way.” Once vehicles were eventually cleared, Caltrans workers got onto the bridge and began inspecting it.

Local officials expected heavy delays throughout the region’s primary roadways Thursday, including alternative routes such as the routinely bumper-to-bumper Highway 37, which Caltrans figures show normally sees 42,000 cars per day.

“Any time there’s an incident like an accident on the roadway that even closes one lane, let alone an entire major thoroughfare, the ripple effect takes hours and hours to go away,” said Sonoma County Supervisor David Rabbitt, who also serves on the MTC. “I told my wife to beware, the commute home will be hellish because of the impacts. It’ll mean some late dinners for commuters tonight throughout the North Bay.”

The bridge had undergone a complete retrofit in 2005, including a replacement of a low-lying trestle section on the Marin County side of the bridge, according to the MTC’s website.

Jacala said Caltrans issued an Emergency Director’s Order on Thursday, providing for emergency funding for whatever repairs need to be done to the bridge. He said a cost estimate was not yet available for repairs and the next steps for the bridge will be determined over the weekend.

Hachmyer said she enjoyed chatting with others who were out of their cars wondering what led to the holdup before they were eventually permitted to exit the bridge.

“It was very little wind and great weather, which was a benefit,” she said. “It was a lovely day to stare out at the water, so long as the bridge doesn’t collapse.”

You can reach Staff Writer Julie Johnson at 707-521-5220 or julie.johnson@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @jjpressdem. You can reach Staff Writer Kevin Fixler at 707-521-5336 or kevin.fixler@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @kfixler. You can reach Staff Writer Andrew Beale at 707-521-5205 or andrew.beale@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @iambeale.

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