The Cline Avenue Bridge

East Chicago, 15 April 1982, 1040. The biggest Indiana Department of Highways project to that date suffered a major accident. The ramp to the Cline Avenue bridge, built to replace a lift bridge over the Indiana Harbor Ship Canal, collapsed. The resulting accident, one of the worst industrial accidents in Indiana history, killed 12 people and injured 17 more.

Chronology of the collapse of the ramps to the Cline Avenue Bridge in East Chicago, Indiana. Image courtesy of The Times of Munster, Indiana, 16 April 1982, via newspapers.com.

The Cline Avenue bridge was part of a larger project known as a replacement SR 912. SR 912, at that time, crossed the Indiana Harbor Canal on Dickie Road, a lift bridge with numerous traffic delays. The goal was to replace this grade level road with a six lane expressway, eliminating at-grade crossings, and soaring over the canal with a bridge 130 feet high.

One of the rare things about the bridge project was that the construction company could decide for itself how to build the bridge. The decision was made to use concrete girder construction. This type of construction had been used, at that time, for nearly three decades. Instead of casting the sections of the bridge in a factory and shipped to the site, the casting was done onsite. The type of construction used meant for lower concrete usage and less cost, but still had the advantage of being very strong.

As the chronology above shows, the first section started its downfall at 1040. That section of the ramp was 250 feet in length. Two minutes afterwards, the first ambulances started arriving on the scene. The problem that was immediately noticed was that there were still six or seven construction workers now on an orphaned section of the bridge. The section lost all connection for those men to safely escape the area. That section had no support, and collapse was deemed imminent. That section collapsed five minutes after the first.

The first 11 dead were taken to a make-shift morgue near the site. As of the reporting of the incident the next day, the 12th victim was still trapped in the debris “encased head-down in concrete that workers had poured just before the collapse.”

“‘Presumably what fell was the false work – the scaffolding that holds up the forms for the concrete,’ said Gene Hallock, director of the Indiana Department of Highways.” (source: Journal and Courier; Lafayette, Indiana; 16 April 1982) According to a History Channel documentary on the project, the footers for the false work was concrete left over from the bridge pour.

It was determined in October, 1982, that, in fact, the problem stemmed from the concrete footers for the false work. Stress tests showed that the concrete used for those footers could only support half the weight necessary for the work. After a redesign of those footers, the construction company completed the original Cline Avenue project in 1984.

But that would not be the end of the bad news for the Cline Avenue bridge. In 2009, it was determined that the bridge suffered from major corrosion and was in need of replacement. The bridge was closed 4 January 2010. Traffic volumes on the bridge had dropped from a high of 80,000 vehicles a day to around 30,000. INDOT determined that replacing the structure was necessary, but not financially feasible. A deal was made to replace the bridge by a private company. Now, nearly a decade later, the replacement bridge is still not built.

Admittedly, the inspiration for this post came from my watching YouTube. Specifically, the above mentioned History Channel documentary.

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