The Mianus River Bridge — 30 Years Later

Thirty years ago today — at 1:28 a.m. — the Mianus River bridge collapsed.

Anyone living in this part of the country in 1983 remembers that tragedy. Three people were killed when 2 cars and 2 tractor-trailers plunged 70 feet from I-95 in Greenwich.

If it had happened during rush hour, or any time during the day — as it easily could have — the toll would have been far worse.

A gaping hole shows the Mianus River bridge collapse.

A gaping hole shows the Mianus River bridge collapse.

The Mianus River Bridge collapse was caused by the failure of 2 pin-and-hanger assemblies that held the deck in place. The culprits were corrosion from water buildup, due to improper roadwork 10 years earlier; the long-term effects of salt (put down during winter storms, and in the salt marsh below) — and inadequate inspection resources.

Two tractor-trailers and 2 cars plunged 70 feet into the salt marsh below.

Two tractor-trailers and 2 cars plunged 70 feet into the salt marsh below.

It took 6 months for the bridge to reopen. All that time, the Post Road and other streets in Greenwich were gridlocked. Simple trips between Westport and New York lengthened substantially.

The Mianus River bridge has been completely reconstructed. The disaster caused other pin and hanger bridges throughout the country to be re-examined, and reconstructed too.

But 30 years later — and in the aftermath of the I-5 Skagit River bridge collapse in Washington state — fears are rising again about the state of the nation’s infrastructure. Concern is particularly high in places like Connecticut, where age, harsh weather and heavy traffic enact a heavy toll.

We seldom think of the I-95 bridge that spans the Saugatuck River in Westport. It’s just part of the landscape, and the new Saugatuck redevelopment — harnessing the beauty of the water, handsome architecture and the vibrancy of a very walkable neighborhood — makes it even easier to ignore.

Yet according to Transportation for America, that bridge (and the less traveled, but also important Merritt Parkway span between Exits 41 and 42) are “structurally deficient.”

The Westport News says that term is applied when

the National Bridge Inventory evaluation system gives a rating of “poor” or worse to the deck of the bridge, the superstructure underpinning the roadway deck or the substructure, which includes piers as well as columns and crossbars that hold up the substructure and deck. These are bridges that require significant “maintenance, rehabilitation or replacement.”

Fortunately, the News added,  state Department of Transportation spokesman Kevin Nursick

said the deficient bridges do not compromise public safety immediately. The “structurally deficient” category is a serious concern, he said, but does not mean a bridge is unsafe for travel, though repairs are needed to restore the bridge’s original load standards when new.

But bridges do collapse. Thirty years after life in Greenwich was thrown into chaos, let’s hope the lessons learned are still being heeded.

(For a History Channel video on the Mianus River tragedy, click here.)

14 responses to “The Mianus River Bridge — 30 Years Later

  1. Jack Backiel sent this along. He did not want to post it, because it’s hearsay — but when I told him I’d heard the same story, he told me to go ahead:

    Dan, I remember hearing a story about that night. A person in a car was alert enough to see the collapsed bridge and applied the brakes just in time to avoid the plunge. The person got out of the car and started waving his arms to try to get the next car to stop. The next car went by and a person in the car gave the guy the middle finger and kept on going. The rest is history.

  2. I was counsel to the estate of the young man that died as a result of the Mianus River Bridge collapse. In that case, the State of Connecticut was negligent when it failed to properly inspect and repair the Mianus River Bridge. Now, in part due to the recent Transportation for America study, it is clear that the State is on notice of the structurally deficient nature of 102 bridges in Fairfield County alone. Three of these bridges are specifically in the Greenwich/Stamford/Norwalk stretch of I-95. This is particularly important because more than 100,000 people a day drive over these bridges. It is imperative that the State move to repair these bridges now before another tragedy happens.

    Richard A. Silver, Esq.
    Silver Golub & Teitell LLP
    Stamford, CT 06901

  3. For what it is worth, I worked in a restaurant in Greenwich back then (called Morgan), and I drove over that bridge a few hours before it fell that night. Yikes!

    • Jack Backiel

      Julie, For what it’s worth, you’re lucky you’re here to talk about it. I’m sure you think about that night every once in a while.

  4. Bart Shuldman

    Governor Malloy raided the transportation fund to help close his huge budget gap. We in CT will face increasing deterioration of our roads and bridges. The lesson was not learned.

    Now Malloy has said he is raising gas taxes starting in July. He said it is to rebuild the transportation fund but it is now proven to money will be used to help continue to close his self induced budget gap.

    It was announced this week that CT has the 2nd highest debt and obligation per capita in the US. Second only to Illinois.

    Drive safely.


  5. I recall the story of the boater who motored up the river that afternoon. He was curious about some strange sounds when he passed under the bridge. At 2am, he sat bolt upright in bed, realizing (as a mechanical or structural engineer) that it was the sound of metal reaching its breaking point…

    -Dan Lasley

  6. David Schaffer

    I started working for the “Drive Your Car” Service owned by Peter Stone very soon after this occurred. As I recall there was a temporary span built by that time so there was no need to detour into Greenwich, but it still had a big impact on traffic and additional time was required to reach the airports and other NYC destinations.

    Anyone know if Peter Stone is still in business?

  7. I grew up a mile or so from the bridge, in Old Greenwich, and crossed it frequently. I was awakened that morning by helicopters buzzing over my house as all the news and traffic choppers surveyed the scene. At the time I did hear the story about the driver who stopped, and I recall hearing that one of the cars that ended up in the river was a BMW, but can’t verify.

    In the butterfly’s wings version of long term consequences, the collapse of the Mianus River Bridge brought us a state income tax and the decline of our state into its present fiscal dumpster.

    The collapse brought Governor O’Neill to Fairfield County for perhaps the first time in his life, having hitherto viewed it as merely a taxable part of New York. His immediate response was to suspend toll collection on the Turnpike. I thought at the time this was bizarre in that the collapse could pretty obviously be laid at the feet of a negligent state that was perhaps not collecting enough tolls, but certainly not spending enough on its roads.

    Tolls were restored after the bridge was repaired, but a few years later they were permanently removed, with the blame conveniently laid on a very bad accident at the Stratford toll plaza. The absence of several hundred million dollars a year in toll revenues blew a hole in the state budget, and Greenwich’s own Lowell Weicker, comfortably living on his Bristol Myers Squibb dividends, strongarmed the legislature into passing an income tax. (They had passed several budgets without the tax, but he vetoed them until he got his tax.) The income tax reduced the tax on dividends substantially, but replaced it with a tax on pretty much everything else: a very regressive change in the tax structure, for those who purport to care about such things.

    Subsequent legislatures and governors, flush with cash from the income tax, lost any spending discipline, and drove the state’s finances into the toilet, while continuing to neglect our roads.

    So, what should have been a re-justification of highway tolls and a clarion call for spending the money on proper road maintenance led instead to little or no improvement in our roads and the destruction of our finances.

    • Eric William Buchroeder

      Wow!!!! 20/20 vision both retrospectively and prospectively!!!!!

      • Bart Shuldman

        The American Society of Covil Engineers 2013 infrastructure report card just rated CT worse in the nation. Tied with Illinois. 73% of the road or either in poor or mediocre condition. And Governor Malloy is raided the transportation fund by $90 Million

  8. Bart Shuldman

    Just in case you really care:

    “$1.2 billion has disappeared,” said Michael Fox, executive director of an association representing about 400 Connecticut gasoline stations. “It’s not that we didn’t have the money. It’s that the legislature — and I use this word — stole the money.”

    Weaning government off of fuel taxes?

    Gov. Dannel P. Malloy blasted the state’s practice of siphoning off fuel revenues as he ran for governor in 2010.

    But once in state office, Malloy, who inherited a mammoth-sized $3.7 billion operating deficit, relied on fuel revenues as his predecessor had.

    The Democratic governor likes to note that the new budget he signed will dedicate an extra $181 million in wholesale fuel tax receipts to transportation.

    But it also cancels another $151 million transfer to transportation and shifts an additional $91 million from this program into the General Fund.

    Add up the pluses and minuses, and transportation loses $60 million in the new fiscal year — the value of Monday’s gasoline tax hike.

  9. Jack Backiel

    I thought we needed to include full names when making a comment. That would be directed to ruby.