MICHIGAN CITY – On one of the busiest weekends of the year in Washington Park, drivers were detoured from the Franklin Street Bridge, which was closed for more than 3 hours after an SUV was crushed between the rising bridge deck and pavement.
No one was injured in the incident, which occurred just before 4 p.m. on the south side of the bridge, according to Tony Drzewiecki, spokesman for the Michigan CIty Fire Department, which was notified at 4 p.m. of a vehicle "stuck on the lower ramp of the bridge and possibly on fire.
"The vehicle was still on the bridge when it opened and became impaled on the lower section of the bridge, and wedged between the road and the bridge," he said.
Michigan CIty Police Chief Mark Swistek called the incident an "unfortunate" accident.
"We were very unfortunate that it was only a property damage accident," Swistek said. "It was very fortunate for the family that no one was in the rear of the vehicle."
Charles Weitzel of Oberlin, Ohio – who was driving the GMC Arcadia with his wife in the passenger seat – said he had just driven onto the bridge when the gates went down.
"I started across the bridge and the warning arms came down behind me," Weitzel said on the scene as first responders huddled to come up with a plan to remove the vehicle from the upright bridge.
Weitzel said he thought about speeding up to cross the bridge when he noticed it was rising.
"I tried to back up, but it was too late," he said.
As the bridge kept rising, the SUV slid into the opening between the rising deck and pavement, where the back end was partially crushed between the metal and concrete.
"The truck got wedged in there and then I couldn't go forward anymore," Weitzel said.
His wife, who did not wish to be named, said, "I jumped out of there as soon as we stopped, and some people helped me out."
Weitzel stayed in the vehicle until he realized it was not going to move anymore, then was helped out by bystanders using a ladder.
While scanners initially reported a car on fire on the bridge, Weitzel said, "It started smoking a little, but there was no fire and we were not hurt."
"Several agencies were called to check on the integrity of the bridge and to assist with the removal of the vehicle without damaging the bridge," Drzewiecki said.
"The Port Authority assisted with a fork truck that was used to lift the SUV off the bridge, using lifting straps from the Fire Department."
As the Wietzels watched from the roadway, along with dozens of curious bystanders, the forklift was moved into place to try to lift the car free.
"They want to lift the car a little, then raise the bridge a bit more so they can get the car free," Mayor Ron Meer said as he watched the bridge, and the line of frustrated drivers who were being detoured from the bridge to an alternate route to Lake Shore Drive.
On the third attempt, the crane, using a sling placed through the front windows of the SUV, was able to lift it up enough to swing it free of the bridge and back onto Franklin Street, as onlookers and first responders cheered.
Then came a few nervous moments as the bridge was lowered and operators and officials inspected it to make sure no damage was done to the historic structure.
"The bridge remained closed down for two hours while it was inspected for safety," Drzewiecki said.
Swistek said Saturday that no long-term damage was found on the bridge, which will be closely watched.
"There is staff out there watching the mechanical aspects of the bridge, because something that traumatic puts a lot of pressure on the mechanical parts."
He said some decking panels, which were recently replaced, were damaged in the accident and "there is some concern for the mechanical aspect. They will be looking it over very closely for the next several weeks."
The bridge was reopened to traffic around 7:30 p.m., about 3 1/2 hours after the incident occurred.
The Weitzels were on the first day of a vacation and had not been to the area before, Charles Weitzel said.
He questioned whether the bridge was automated, and why the operator did not warm him, but some witnesses to the event gave a different story.
One man said the bridge operator "yelled at them to stop several times but they kept going as the gates came down."
Another woman said the driver seemed to "ignore several commands to stop."
Swistek said no citations will be issued, but "video of the incident will be reviewed as part of the investigation."
Police and firefighters helped the couple unload the vehicle, filled with suitcases, clothes, groceries and other vacation items.
"They were nice people and we tried to help them out," Swistek said. "We took three carloads of stuff over to the Beachwalk for them, and helped them get set up with a rental car."
The chief said he's "had fears of something like this happening, but in all my years living in Michigan City and all my time on the department, I've never seen anything like it. I was kind of in awe."
The mayor agreed. "I've never seen anything like that," he said. "I've seen where cars have broken the warning arms, and ... one bad accident ... but nothing like this in all my years here."