Norco resident Roxanna Colon is still haunted by the day she and her stepfather survived the Manchac bridge collapse, which occurred more than 31 years ago. On Sept. 14, 1976, a huge section of the Pass Manchac Bridge on U.S. Highway 51 collapsed amid a shower of concrete and vehicles after a barge rammed into it. That destruction caused three vehicles to fall into the water, and only two survivors were found.
Though Colon was soon to be caught in the midst of a horror show, the day began with the promise of an exciting trip into New Orleans where her stepfather, who worked for the state’s Department of Agriculture, planned to go into the French Quarter to inspect fruit at the produce market. Colon went with him, and without warning, a relaxing drive to the picturesque French Quarters turned into a nightmare she relives over and over again.
“The ground started to shake and I remember hearing loud screeching sounds,” she said. “I looked out of the car window and realized the bridge had collapsed. My stepdad and I were the fourteenth vehicle in line to get on that bridge.”
Colon saw an eighteen wheeler jack-knife and fly in the air.
“It was horrible and I remember seeing pieces of concrete and bodies falling into the water,” she said. “I screamed and my step dad took my head and told me to get down on the floor of the passenger front seat.”
Colon believes it was his way of protecting her from the sights and sounds of horror going on all around her.
“To this day, I can’t get on a bridge,” she said. “I remember seeing cars plummeting into the water, you could see them going in.”
Because she witnessed that terrifying event, Colon had to seek professional counseling to get clarity and closure on the experience.
“When the bridge in Minnesota collapsed, I watched it on television and I prayed for those families because I know what they are going through,” she said. “I’m afraid of bridges, and when I do have to go over one my knuckles turn white because I’m gripping the steering wheel so tightly.”
Although plunging off of a bridge in a car sounds like a sure death sentence, survival experts say people can and do walk away from these kinds of accidents. The Department of Motor Vehicle Safety gives these tips to motorists to keep them safe in the event of this type of crash.
– Remain calm. The preceding events will no doubt get your adrenaline pumping, but don’t panic. You must move quickly and effectively to ensure your survival. Take a few breaths to calm yourself down, but don’t spend more than about 2 seconds doing this.
– Get out quickly. Unbuckle your seat belt and make sure you don’t get tangled up in it. Many victims of this sort of accident drown with the car doors open or windows down, with their seat belts still securely fastened. You can try to open the door (make sure to unlock it first) but don’t waste much time on this. If the water is up to the door, you probably won’t be able to open it. Instead, try to roll down the window as quickly as possible and escape from the opened window.
– Try to open your window. The best way to get out if this is the case is to open the window. If this is not possible-electric windows, for example, may malfunction-try to break the window out and escape. However if you have manually operated windows you are in luck because they work even if some water is visible but this still represents a small amount of time. If you can only see about an inch of water outside the window it should still open pretty easily, but after that it get progressively harder due to the pressure being exerted on it from the outside. If you have electrically operated windows then obviously breaking the windows is the only remaining option. The side windows and rear window are tempered, which means that they will break when struck hard enough with a pointed object. There are special tools called “window punches” (a spring-loaded center punch) and other tools designed for this purpose. The windshield, however, is actually two pieces of glass laminated together with a thin strip of plastic in-between. You will not be able to break through the windshield. Don’t bother trying. If you are not yet completely under water yet. Break a window and crawl out. Don’t bother opening the door you don’t have time. However keep in mind if you are already under water that when you break the window, water will rapidly flow into the car. This is frightening, but try to remain calm. Without allowing water into the car to balance out the pressure acting on the car from the outside, it will be very difficult to open the door and escape.
– Climb into the back seat. If you are unable to open your windows, climb into the back seat as quickly as possible. The car’s engine will cause the car to sink front-end first, creating an air pocket in the back of your vehicle. The trapped air will allow you more time to break a window or open a door once the air and water pressure in and around the car equalizes.
– Keep your head above water. As the vehicle fills with water, you need to make sure you can still breathe. If the car lands upright you may simply be able to remain in your seat, but if the car lands on its top or side, you will have to maneuver within the car to keep your head in the air pocket.
– Escape through a window or open the door as soon as you can. Water will initially flow into the car very quickly, so you may not be able to escape from an open window. Remember to make sure your door is unlocked. In your haste you may think you can’t open the door when all you need to do is unlock it.
– Swim to the surface as quickly as possible. Push off the car and swim to the surface. If you don’t know which way to swim, look for light and swim toward it or follow any bubbles you see as they will be going up, or allow yourself to float for a moment. You will eventually start to float towards the surface. Be aware of your surroundings as you swim and surface. You may have to deal with a strong current or obstacles such as rocks, concrete bridge supports, or even passing boats. Avoid injuring yourself on these things, and use them to your advantage if you are too injured or exhausted to make it to land once you surface.
– Get medical attention as soon as possible. The adrenaline in your bloodstream after the escape may make you unable to immediately detect any other injuries you may have sustained in the accident.