When Gonzalo Santos was driving to work on an icy morning back in March of last year, his 1989 pickup hit an icy patch on a bridge crossing the Chehalis River on Highway 107, just outside the Montesano city limits. His truck couldn’t regain traction and ended up going through a wooden railing, flipping in mid-air and crashing below, where he died in a marsh of three to four feet of water.
As it turns out, in the past 20 years, it’s the third fatal accident that happened on that bridge in icy conditions and the 13th major accident involving icy conditions, according to state Department of Transportation reports. In fact, at almost the exact same spot, a vehicle went through the wooden bridge railing on March 7, 1985.
And, like this time, the wooden planks were placed back.
Attorney Keith Kessler of Hoquiam says that’s not right. The state should be taking care of the bridges better, he says; and wooden railings — which obviously can’t stop a car — need to be replaced with metal railings, he says.
Kessler is now representing Santos’ widow, Yolanda, in a wrongful-death lawsuit against the state of Washington. Had a metal guardrail been in place, Kessler asserts that Santos may very well be alive today. Kessler’s suit says because the state failed to properly maintain the bridge, the state has subjected “the public to an unsafe bridge.”
The lawsuit, filed May 20 in Grays Harbor Superior Court, notes, “Bridge guardrails should redirect errant vehicles and help keep them from going over the side of the bridge. As of March 22, 2013, and for a substantial period prior thereto, the Chehalis River Bridge was inherently dangerous and not reasonably safe for ordinary travel, with deficiencies that included, but were not limited to, inadequate bridge guardrails.”
The lawsuit cites state inspection reports dating back to 2007, which all noted serious problems with the bridge and a note that consistently stated that the rails had not been crash tested.
“Bridge rails are not crash tested,” a report from March of 2007 states, adding, “Most of the paint is gone from the timber railings. Several of the posts are beginning to decay near the base and are beginning to loosen up at the connections with the sidewalk stringer.”
A June 2009 report noted, “Most of the paint is gone from the timber railings. Several of the posts are beginning to decay near the base and are beginning to loosen up at the connections with the sidewalk stringer.” A March 2010 report used the exact same language.
A March 2011 report states, “Timber bridge railing is missing most of the paint with several areas near the post bases are beginning to decay or loosen up.” The lawsuit notes that one section of the railing was “red tagged” for rot that year.
The April 2012 report also noted the paint issue and that “several areas near the post bases are beginning to decay and loosen up.”
Not all of the bridge is covered in wooden railings. A trip to the bridge last week showed that there’s a metal railing on both sides of the bridge, itself, as well as a metal guardrail leading immediately to the south and north sides of the bridge. The wooden railing is really only present on both sides of the highway when cars are driving over a marshy slough before drivers get to the actual bridge that crosses the Chehalis River at Montesano.
In January, Kessler filed a claim for damages against the state. According to the state’s Risk Management Division, Kessler never listed an actual dollar amount he was seeking.
The lawsuit, filed in May, seeks damages for the Estate of Gonzalo Santos as well as damages for his wife, Yolanda, and their two children for the companionship Santos would have provided them, as well as “care, instruction, guidance and emotional support.” Kessler says that Santos was the prime breadearner for the family.
“Without a doubt, had there been a metal guardrail, he’d be alive,” Kessler said in a phone interview. “We have a nationally known guardrail expert who has looked at the situation and has told us just that.”
FIRST TO ARRIVE
Miguel Harvey, who works out in the woods for Weyerhaeuser, was the first to arrive at the scene of the accident, which happened at about 5 a.m., on March 22, 2013. Harvey had left his house in Montesano shortly before the accident.
Harvey says what happened is still clear for him today.
“I drive that way every day,” Harvey says. “I know every stone between here and Cosmopolis. And you get used to your surroundings. I remember driving by and there was more darkness than usual at the bridge. It looked like part of the bridge was just gone. It gave me chills. I had this weird feeling, so I pulled to the side of the road to see.”
A Monte Fire Department report notes that the vehicle was found 30 feet off the bridge. A Montesano Police report says that Santos’ vehicle was resting on its top with all four wheels and undercarriage visible. Approximately a half to three-quarters of the top portion of the vehicle was submerged in water.
“I walked to the right side toward the edge of the bridge,” Harvey says. “I walk over and I got my flash light. I looked over the edge and I thought I saw a tail light. I decided to walk down and noticed a vehicle down there, but I couldn’t tell what the hell was down there.”
Soon, he found himself in about two feet of water. The radio was still on. It was loud. There was some kind of rock music playing.
“I kept saying, ‘What am I going to do, God? What am I going to do?’ … I still think about it,” said Harvey.
“I walked up to the door,” Harvey says in his written report to the State Patrol. “I could hear the radio was going and saw the headlights were still on as the lights were shining toward the bridge. I shouted out, ‘Hey. How bad are you hurt? Do you need any help?” I got no response. I pounded on the door with my right hand and yelled, ‘Are you hurt?’ I listened for any noise, moaning, anything and got no response. I attempted to open the door, but couldn’t. The water was too deep. So, I went back around near where there was lower water and felt safer. I shouted a couple more times. I started to really get cold. I decided to head back toward my truck to get something to get the door open.”
He said he saw Santos’ hand gripping his steering wheel and there was no movement. The color in the hand was draining.
Soon after, first responders arrived.
“I responded to the location and upon arrival, I located a section of the wooden guardrail missing from the southwest side of the Chehalis River Bridge,” Montesano Police Officer Shane Green wrote in his report. “In the area where the guardrail was missing, I was familiar that there is a significant drop at that point. I could see that first responders from the fire department were also arriving on the bridge deck. The bridge deck was a solid sheet of ice and extremely slick.”
The cab was “crushed down onto the passenger seat and the top of the driver’s seat,” a police report states.
The Montesano Fire report noted that emergency responders were “unable to gain access to vehicle due to safety.” It took an hour and a half to get the victim out of the vehicle using hand tools. Santos was “found upside down, head submerged.” He was “cold to the touch.”
A report with the Grays Harbor Coroner’s Office found that Santos didn’t die as a result of the crash, itself. He died from drowning when the water flooded the interior of the truck.
A report of the incident filed months after it happened by the Washington State Patrol concluded that Santos “drove his vehicle with bald tires at a speed too fast for the icy road conditions, which caused him to lose control of his vehicle.”
The report showed that all four of Santos’ tires had tread issues — the left front at 1/32, the right front at 2/32, the left rear at 2/32 and the right rear at 4/32. Kessler acknowledges that the tires were bald, but still asserts a metal guardrail would have prevented Santos’ death.
There was evidence that Santos used his brakes and steering “in an attempt to regain control of the vehicle,” but it ended up breaching the wooden bridge railing guardrail that consists of three 5.25-foot by 2.5-foot boards.
“Santos lost control of his vehicle as he entered the bridge,” Trooper Brett Tolon wrote. “His vehicle slid into the southbound lane. Santos attempted to gain control by steering and braking. The vehicle slid sideways, rotating counter clockwise across the southbound land and the left front tire struck the sidewalk. This caused his vehicle to rotate counter clockwise, loading the right rear tire, which left an increasing radius arc tire mark. The rotation and sliding continued until the right front tire drove on top of the sidewalk relieving the pressure. ... The vehicle rolled slightly counter clockwise in the air causing the passenger side of the top of the vehicle to hit the ground first. The vehicle came to rest on its top facing east.”
Inside the crushed vehicle, the report suggests that Santos was unable to get out — if he were even conscious — because the cab had become crushed and the seatbelt prevented further movement.
The State Patrol report notes that it was 31 degrees out shortly after the accident; “the bridge deck was icy, making it difficult to walk.”
Kessler said the bridge has always had a problem with ice. Some years ago, Kessler said he represented a client involved in a fatal collission on the very same bridge.
“The state inspects the bridge,” Kessler said. “But they don’t always fix them. I don’t fault them for that. But a vehicle had already gone through the wooden railing and so they knew the railing wasn’t going to stop accidents, but they put it back.”
Kessler, who has devoted much of his legal career to trying to get the state to solve its infrastructure issues, says that wooden railings have been replaced over much of the state.
The lawsuit notes that two other bridges immediately north of the one crossing the Chehalis River had their wooden railing replaced with W-beam steel guardrail. And, in 2011, a driver struck one of those metal guardrails when he fell asleep at the wheel — and survived with no injuries.
“The W-beam guardrails are pretty inexpensive,” Kessler said. “I don’t understand why they replaced it on the two neighboring bridges and not this one. At some point, someone must have done a cost benefit analysis and decided it wasn’t worth it to install — and now someone else is dead. Why they did the two bridges and didn’t do this bridge is beyond me. We don’t understand that and we’ll find out.”
Harvey says he still drives across the bridge. At one point, a cross had been put up where Santos had died. It’s since been removed. He thinks about Santos sometimes. It’s hard not to. As it happens, Harvey’s son works at Mary’s River Lumber. And that’s where Santos worked for the past 10 years as a machine operator on the quad saw sharp chain. Santos was about a block from work when he died in the accident. You can see the mill from the bridge.
Santos was raised in Michoacán, Mexico, and moved to Aberdeen in 1991. An obituary noted he loved soccer, boxing, the outdoors and taking his family on vacations.
As Harvey has made the drive from Montesano to Cosmopolis for so many years. Santos, who lived in Cosmopolis, had made the opposite commute. They probably passed each other on the road.
“I wish the bridge would have had the metal guard rails,” Harvey says. “It would be nice if there would be lights and a more up-to-date bridge. But it is what it is. You can’t spend thousands and millions of dollars on getting everything out there fixed. There’s just too much. So, I guess I understand that, too. I don’t understand why this happened.”