Fiery Crash Closes Brent Spence Indefinitely

Nov 11, 2020

Updated: 6:52 p.m.

A fiery crash involving two semi trucks has forced the closure of the Brent Spence Bridge connecting Covington to Cincinnati via I-71/75, in both directions. One of the trucks was carrying a chemical called potassium hydroxide which investigators believe contributed to the heat and duration of the fire.

It could be several days before the bridge reopens, according to Kentucky officials. Inspectors must wait for the bridge to cool down enough before they can begin assessing the damage.

"Several days is optimistic," said Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear during a mid-day news conference Wednesday. "We won't have the details until those inspectors are there but this is a serious accident and it is not outside the realm of possibility that we are looking at weeks."

The governor says he intends to issue an emergency declaration in order to qualify for federal assistance.

"Our full expectation, right now, is that it's going to be repairable, it's just how much time will it take to get there," Beshear says. "We can't not have a bridge at all there."

The closure has created significant traffic issues in Covington as drivers seek alternate routes between the two cities, with heavy back-ups on Main and Pike streets. Kentucky is directing people to use I-471 and I-275 to bypass the bridge.

Traffic backing up from the interstate on Pike Street in Covington.
Credit Brian Frey / The River City News

Covington Police reported that the crash happened on the bridge at around 2:45 a.m. and that both trucks were fully engulfed in flames. The Covington Fire Department worked to extinguish the vehicles, but flames burned for more than two hours.

According to Kentucky state officials, 400 gallons of diesel was the main cause of the fire, though it's unclear how much spilled onto the bridge and burned during the fire. It's undetermined as of Wednesday afternoon what caused the first truck to jackknife

The fire also caused damage to the southbound lanes of the bridge on the upper deck. 

Neither truck driver was injured, however.

“This is a very important bridge, not just for the region but for the nation, and we are fully committed to getting it back into service. But the safety of the public and of our and Ohio’s employees is absolutely critical,” said Governor Andy Beshear in a news conference on Wednesday afternoon. “In the next hours, maybe a little longer, we need your patience. That patience is necessary to make sure we don’t send anybody to do the inspection or to clean up the debris until we know they will be OK.”

At best, the bridge will be closed for several days, but travelers should be prepared for the possibility of weeks, Beshear said. Every reopening estimate at this time is purely speculative, he said.

During his news conference, Beshear said that one of the trucks jackknifed on the bridge and the second truck crashed into it.

"The bottom line is, the wreck was simply terrible," Covington Mayor Joe Meyer told The River City News on Wednesday afternoon. He met with county emergency management, state transportation and Coast Guard officials. "The fire and the heat associated with it was incredibly intense."

Meyer explained that there was some damage to the concrete on the bridge, and it is falling.

The Ohio River was also closed to traffic. Like the bridge, the river beneath it is a major shipping channel. The US Coast Guard is in charge of determining when the river can reopen.

"The structural supports are blackened from the fire and the bridge inspectors are waiting until there is sufficient cleanup that they can do a decent inspection job," the mayor said. That inspection work could still start on Wednesday, he said, but it could also be delayed until Thursday.

"The preliminary thought is that the bridge will be closed for several days and it might be even longer. It might be weeks depending on what they find," Meyer said.

The crash remains under investigation and the bridge is being inspected. Police said that the bridge would remain closed "for an extended period of time," though it is unclear what that means.

The bridge is being inspected for structural soundness.

"The Brent Spence Bridge is a vital component of our national highway system," says Jack Marchbanks, director of the Ohio Department of Transportation, in a statement. "A closure of any length will have a huge impact on the people who live and work in this region. The Ohio Department of Transportation is working closely with the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet and the Federal Highway Administration to keep people and goods moving in the region and we will assist Kentucky in any way we can in order to get the bridge repaired and reopened quickly and safely."

The Brent Spence is nearly 60 years old and is considered to be functionally obsolete because it currently handles more than the double the original traffic capacity for which it was constructed. The equivalent of 3% of the nation's gross domestic product crosses the bridge each year.

It is not deemed to be structurally deficient.

As the inspection and investigation continue, northbound traffic is being diverted to I-275 eastbound and then I-471 northbound.

Due to that traffic diversion, Covington officials are preparing for the impact on local infrastructure, Mayor Meyer said. 

One possible temporary solution would be to direct large northbound trucks to exit the highway at Fifth Street in Covington and then to the Clay Wade Bailey Bridge to Cincinnati, to alleviate some of the back-up on Twelfth/MLK, Pike, and Main streets. The historic Roebling Suspension Bridge has also seen an increase in traffic, including from large trucks, Meyer said, even though there is a weight limit that forbids their use of it between Covington and Cincinnati.

"We need to be sure to take steps to keep the Roebling Suspension Bridge from being collateral damage to this problem on the Brent Spence Bridge," Meyer said. "We've asked our state police for support and the transportation cabinet to help with electronic signage and barrels, and all the things that have to be done to direct the flow of traffic."

In the meantime, it is expected that suburban commuters to Cincinnati will turn to interstates 275 and 471 while inner ring suburban commuters will know their way through Covington to Cincinnati, Meyer said. 

The mayor, like the governor, urged patience.

"This is very much out of our hands," he said. "We are working closely with the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet officials to mitigate the negative impact on the city and our city streets. No matter how much we mitigate, there will be a lot more traffic on the state routes in Covington as long as the Brent Spence Bridge is closed."

Secretary of Transportation Jim Gray said that the bridge was due for a paint job next month. 

The bridge has long been a topic of discussion in the region, and in recent years has been targeted for transformation with a price tag north of $2 billion. However, because much of the financing component of any serious plan has involved the use of tolls, local state legislators and other officials have opposed the project. Most plans include a widening of parts of the highway on both sides of the Ohio River and constructing a second span next to the existing Brent Spence.

Local chambers of commerce have been enthusiastic supporters of a bridge replacement project.

"It's just another stark reminder that this Brent Spence Bridge and the corridor are a danger to our community and a reminder to us that we need to start being proactive about transportation and to stop being reactive," said Northern Kentucky Chamber of Commerce President & CEO Brent Cooper, who spoke with The River City News late Wednesday.

"We have been advocating for this for nearly two decades."

"Until we start making those investments in infrastructure, in part in Northern Kentucky, and as a country, we are never going to be able to grow our economy the way we deserve," Cooper said. 

"I just don't think people have fully grasped how impactful just one day of the bridge shutting down is," he said. "We've been talking about this for nearly two decades and the only thing in the (state) road plan for the Brent Spence Bridge is a paint job next month.

"That is extremely disheartening and frustrating."

Federal and local officials, and Ohio officials, have also been engaged, Governor Beshear and Secretary Gray said of the bridge situation Wednesday.

"The Brent Spence Bridge is a vital component of our national highway system," said Dr. Jack Marchbanks, Ohio Department of Transportation Director. "A closure of any length will have a huge impact on the people who live and work in this region. The Ohio Department of Transportation is working closely with the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet and the Federal Highway Administration to keep people and goods moving in the region and we will assist Kentucky in any way we can in order to get the bridge repaired and reopened quickly and safely."

Portions of this article first appeared on The River City News. For more like this, visit rcnky.com now.