Sewickley Bridge - "The Only Thing Holding It Up..."
By Jerry Sharpe
from special issue "Pittsburgh Bridges Falling Down," The Pittsburgh Press Roto
Sunday, June 5, 1977
Copyright acknowledged. This article is reproduced here for historical and educational purposes.
The dilapidated 67-year-old Sewickley Bridge was finally closed last Jan. 30 (1976) -- eight years after engineers detected deterioration.
In the interim, drivers and pedestrians held their breath and crossed their fingers as they looked through the holes in the deck and saw the Ohio River.
As long ago as 1972, painters balked about starting a job when they found handrails too shaky to support scaffold cables.
Two years later, members of Painters Local 6 refused to go back to work after a 1,000 pound concrete slab fell from the bridge sidewalk, narrowly missing a foreman eating lunch below.
Then, the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (PennDot) closed the sidewalks and removed all slabs to prevent any more from falling.
The bridge was restricted to traffic weighing no more than three tons. It was put on the "critical" list, meaning it would be inspected every three months.
Clamor For Action
Last year, a group of area residents and businessmen for the Committee to Save Sewickley Bridge and clamored for state officials to act.
The group's chairman, Coraopolis businessman Jack Simpson, dramatized the public's incensed feelings by walking to work across the bridge regularly since it was closed.
Finally, emergency repairs costing $250,000 authorized.
The state has also decided to build, eventually, a new $8-million, two-lane bridge on the existing piers.
What took so long? The answer is mired in bureaucratic red tape and complicated engineering technicalities.
Nalin H. Udani, PennDot area bridge engineer, explained the mess as well as it can be explained.
PennDot, he said, began "in-depth" inspection of all bridges in the Commonwealth after the Silver Bridge crumbled into the Ohio River at Point Pleasant, W. Va., on Dec. 15, 1967, killing 46 people and bringing multimillion-dollar lawsuits.
Green Engineering Co.'s report, finished in 1969, showed "some deterioration -- not a crisis" of Sewickley Bridge. In the early 1970s, PennDot asked for funds for a detailed report to determine whether the bridge should be replaced.
Finally, the study money was allocated in the 1973-1974 budget.
However, it took until August, 1976, to clear other red-tape hurdles and finally get the study underway.
Five months (and $110,000) later, the consultants' report indicated Sewickley Bridge should be closed -- the decision came within 48 hours after a supporting beam cracked on the newly opened bridge on Interstate 79 across the Ohio.
"We found some bridge members so fatigue and corroded, they couldn't support their own weight," reports Norman G. Marks of Richardson, Gordon and Associates, consulting engineers hired by PennDot to conduct the inspection. "the bridge could have gone at any time; that's why we recommended closing it. We may be able to buy a year's time by rehabilitating it, but it will have to be replaced."
Eight Dangerous Years?
Was it dangerous to leave the old bridge open for eight years after deterioration was first discovered?
PennDot engineers don't think so.
When the bridge was posted at a three-ton load limit in 1974, it was also put on a three-month inspection cycle, Udani pointed out.
Three months may seem to a layman like a lot of time for a bridge to collapse.
"But to bridge engineers it is a sufficient schedule to determine a bridge's safety," said Udani.
He added, "We also took into consideration the fact that the bridge is of uppermost importance to many users, and we wanted to leave open to them at a safe limit (three-ton) as long as possible."
But Nick Nicoludis, president of Stuart Painting Co., firmly disagrees with engineers' explanations.
It was Stuart's foreman, John Dunleavy, who narrowly missed being struck by the falling sidewalk slab on May 39, 1974.
That's when Nicoludis said, "The only thing holding up that bridge is our paint."
And now, looking back, he said, "When we were hired to paint the bridge in 1972 -- two years before Dunleavy almost got clobbered -- I told engineers right then and there the bridge needed fixing, that it was in bad shape."
"I may not be a bridge engineer, but I've worked on nearly every bridge in this part of the country and I know a bad bridge when I see one."
On April 6, the Committee to Save Sewickley Bridge took its appeal to the State Transportation Committee in Harrisburg.
In asking that the ailing span be given "top priority rating," spokesman Peter Michel of Edgeworth said:
"It is a reflection of business, medical, transportation and social concerns over over 80,000 citizens in this area."
"The county emergency plan for dealing with airport (Greater Pittsburgh International) disasters calls for rushing victims directly from the airport across the Sewickley Bridge to Sewickley Valley Hospital."
Then, the committee presented the commission a well-organized booklet of facts compiled by competent engineering sources and including information from Carnegie-Mellon University's study of 66 key bridges in Allegheny County.
The report pointed out, "When the Carnegie-Mellon group calculated the economic impact of closing various key bridges in Allegheny County, the Sewickley Bridge ranked fifth."
This means that if the bridge were closed for a year, it could cost users more than $4.2 million in lost time and added expense of detours.
In less than two years, at the $7.9-million estimated cost for a new span, Sewickley Bridge would pay for itself.
view page - More info on the 1911 Sewickley Bridge over the Ohio River
view page - More info on the 1981 Sewickley Bridge over the Ohio River
view page - More notes on the 1981 Sewickley Bridge over the Ohio River
view page - Coraopolis Record and the Sewickley Herald article on the 1981 Sewickley Bridge over the Ohio River
view page - Coraopolis Record and the Sewickley Herald article on the designer of the 1981 Sewickley Bridge over the Ohio River
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Original Document: Sharpe, Jerry. "Pittsburgh Bridges Falling Down: Sewickley Bridge . . . 'The Only Thing Holding It Up Is The Paint' " The Pittsburgh Press Roto. Sunday, June 5, 1977