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 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 recently 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 breadwinner 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.”
Kessler said the bridge has always had a problem with ice. Some years ago, Kessler said he represented a client involved in a fatal collision 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.”
Santos worked for the past 10 years as a machine operator on the quad saw sharp chain at Mary’s River Lumber. Santos was about a block from work when he died in the accident. You can see the mill from the bridge, where he died.
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.