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Survivor Recalls ’83 Fall From Lafayette Bridge

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(credit: Jupiter Images)

(credit: Jupiter Images)

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ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — Joe LaBrosse and four friends were crossing the Lafayette Bridge on a snowy December night in 1983 when the driver lost control.

The concrete barrier between the car and the edge of the bridge had been piled with snow from plows and was more of a ramp than a barricade, LaBrosse recalled Tuesday.

The large sedan shot up the snow embankment and teetered over the edge.

“It hesitated momentarily,” said LaBrosse, 54, of West St. Paul. “We all looked at one another with scared looks on our faces, and then we tipped over and fell … to the parking lot below.”

His girlfriend was next to him in the front seat; she died. Another passenger was paralyzed on his right side. LaBrosse and two other women were treated at hospitals.

When LaBrosse read about the Sunday morning plunge of driver Mary Kay Jungbauer off the same St. Paul bridge over the Mississippi River, he thought, “Not another one.”

LaBrosse’s crash and that of two others between 1976 and this weekend all happened when drivers lost control of their cars and shot over the 32-inch high barriers lining the U.S. 52 span.

The Minnesota Department of Transportation said the bridge is safe and the barrier height is standard for all bridges — drivers just need to take their time when weather is bad.

“In the course of 35 years, it’s happened three times,” said MnDOT spokesman Kent Barnard. “It’s not like it’s happening all the time.”

“Ramping” — the piling up of snow along the barriers — happens during big storm events as a normal part of plowing snow from the bridge roadway, said Duane Green Jr., MnDOT’s maintenance operation engineer in charge of structures.

The ramped snow is eventually hauled away as part of normal cleanup, Green said, but can pose a short-term risk on bridges during bad weather.

“It makes safety features ineffective, or less effective, anyway,” he said, cautioning that the “general public still needs to drive appropriately for the conditions of the roadway.”

Jungbauer, 49, of West St. Paul remains in critical condition at Regions Hospital. It is not known what caused her vehicle to leave the bridge and fall about 25 feet to the ground near the downtown St. Paul end of the bridge.

In another past accident, reports said the driver lost control on ice and launched over the barrier.

On Jan. 4, 1976, two St. Paul men died when their car hit ice near the downtown end of the bridge and plunged to the ground below. About 4 inches of snow had fallen during the days leading up to the accident, weather records show.

LaBrosse went over the bridge on Dec. 20, 1983, close to its downtown end, near the site of last weekend’s accident. Some 16 inches of snow had fallen in the days before the accident.

Killed was Michele Ries, 22, of Inver Grove Heights.

LaBrosse said he settled with the state for a small amount after the accident, and added that suits by two other passengers didn’t go anywhere after the courts ruled that the state did an appropriate job of clearing the roadway.

The bridge, completed in 1968, is due for a $130.4 million reconstruction beginning in January. The project is because of the bridge’s age, MnDOT said, not due to any safety issues.

One improvement will be a wider shoulder, said Jennie Read, north area engineer with MnDOT. The current Lafayette Bridge shoulder is about 3 to 4 feet wide; new shoulders will be 12 feet wide, which should provide more of a buffer between the road and the edge of the bridge for motorists, she said.

The new bridge is scheduled for completion by 2014.

By JOHN BREWER
St. Paul Pioneer Press

(© Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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