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Brent Spence Bridge To Remain Closed For Weeks, 'Perhaps More Than A Month'

Workers labored through the night clearing debris from the Brent Spence Bridge.

The Brent Spence Bridge is quiet Thursday as it remains closed following a Wednesday morning crash and fire that burned intensely at extreme temperatures. The span, which carries more than 160,000 vehicles - twice its intended load - is expected to stay shut down for weeks and possibly longer.

Clean-up lasted into the evening and overnight, according to the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet (KYTC). Inspectors were able to get on the bridge Thursday morning to begin their work. KYTC, the Ohio Department of Transportation (ODOT), the Federal Highway Administration and four consulting engineering firms as well as a material scientist are involved in evaluating the bridge.

Ky. Gov. Andy Beshear says the inspection includes checking the concrete and steel for structural safety.

"The examination is going to include the concrete deck to ensure it can safely carry loads; structural members; safety elements to ensure they're aligned and functioning as intended; materials testing will be required to determine the extent of damage caused by the intense heat, which will include taking concrete core samples to test the integrity of the deck and working with the metallurgist to test the composition of the steel truss," Beshear said at a Thursday morning update.

At a second update a few hours later, Kentucky Transportation Secretary Jim Gray offered an initial assessment.

"Given these really challenging conditions, things could have been worse, but we are looking at weeks, perhaps more than a month," Gray says. "We are uncertain yet at this time - it's not fully clear - but we know that under the best case we have repairs that will take weeks to execute."

Beshear says inspectors are using climbing techniques to reach all damaged areas but it's not yet deemed safe to use heavy equipment such as a snooper truck - a truck that has a cherry-picker type basket on an extendable arm.

Once the inspections are complete, KYTC will determine what repairs are necessary.

Gray says the inspections and repair process are being conducted on a parallel track.

"We must know just how badly and severely the Brent Spence was damaged by the fire, what kind of repairs will be needed," Gray says. "But we're already engaged in securing... the supplies, the vendors, the contractors that we know will be needed regardless of the specific details of the eventual repair work."

brent spence bridge
Credit KYTC
Workers gather Thursday morning to being inspecting the damage to the Brent Spence Bridge.

Beshear reiterated that he expects the bridge will reopen, but not until it's deemed safe to do so. He encouraged companies to have a plan for dealing with closure-related effects, and to help employees work from home. Traffic is being diverted to I-275 and I-471.

Beshear declared a state of emergency Wednesday in order to qualify for federal assistance. Kenton County Judge Executive Kris Knochelmann followed suit, declaring a regional state of emergency as well.

Traffic on the Ohio River beneath the bridge was shutdown following the incident but was reopened Thursday afternoon. While the equivalent of 3% of the nation's gross domestic product crosses the Brent Spence each year, the waterway beneath it is also an important shipping channel. The Ports of Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky saw a total of 38.5 million tons of product and materials as per 2018 numbers provided by the Ohio Kentucky Indiana Regional Council of Governments.

The bridge, Beshear says, is more than just a connection between Ohio and Kentucky and people living in the region. "It is a major critical artery to the economy of our country."

The fire - started by hundreds of gallons of fuel from two semi-trucks involved in a crash - burned at up to 1,500 degrees Fahrenheit because one of the trucks was carrying potassium hydroxide. More commonly known as lye, it's used in making soaps and other products.

This story will be updated.


Senior Editor and reporter at WVXU with more than 20 years experience in public radio; formerly news and public affairs producer with WMUB. Would really like to meet your dog.