[Video above: Bob Barnes inadvertently drove into a gap in the Richardson Highway after Bear Creek washed out part of the road. Andy Culbertson was taking a video of the damage when Barnes pulled himself up to the railing. (Video by Andy Culbertson)]
Bob Barnes has spent three decades in Alaska, working jobs felling timber and driving trucks. Until not long ago, he still did 500 pushups every day.
The 64-year-old put all that strength and outdoor savvy to the test Monday night on the flood-scoured Richardson Highway when his pickup plunged into the gaping hole that once was the Bear Creek bridge.
A deluge of rain and melting mountain snow created flash floods that this week damaged more than 20 places along the highway connecting Valdez and Fairbanks, including the bridge. State transportation officials say they shut down a 16-mile section of the Richardson on Monday evening.
The bridge washed out, but the road leading to it was drivable around 11:30 p.m. as Barnes drove south from stops in Fairbanks and Delta Junction to his homestead in the Copper River Valley.
Nearing the bridge across Bear Creek, Barnes came to a large state dump truck parked sideways across part of the road. There were no lights, no signs and no people around, he said. He slowed down, drove around the truck, and kept going.
That’s when he hit Bear Creek and suddenly spotted the giant gap in the pavement at the bridge.
“So I slam my brakes and I’m just skidding straight into this gaping hole,” Barnes said in an interview Thursday. “I bounce off the cement wall. So I hit that wall doing 55. Then it goes straight down from there.”
His 1993 blue Ford Ranger dropped into what Barnes estimated as a 30- to 40-foot hole and landed at a 45-degree angle. Barnes released his seat belt and kicked open the driver-side door. Churning brown creek water swirled to his left, along with a creosote-treated timber wall. He clambered into the bed of his truck.
The cement wall was right in front of him.
“The only thing I could do was go to my right. I had to climb over these steel rods, like a frickin’ orangutan,” he said.
Then he made it to the dirt embankment slope, which he estimated was at a 70-degree angle.
“It was steep,” Barnes said. “So I had to literally, with my hands, claw footsteps. I had to make steps in that hill. I’m clawing my way up that hill.”
He didn’t realize it, but he had company on the bridge.
Andy Culbertson, a 31-year-old from Fairbanks, was driving south on the Richardson to go dipnetting when he came across the same DOT dump truck. Some campers happened to pass by and told him the bridge was out.
“My fishing trip was ruined, so I decided to take a video of the bridge before heading back to Fairbanks,” Culbertson said.
The video pans across the bridge and the sprawling gap in the pavement. That’s when an arm pops out of the gap and grabs the guardrail.
Culbertson stopped filming and ran over to help.
“I would not be taking a video if I knew he was down there,” he said. “I saw him through the camera.”
Barnes said he was only able to reach the railing with his right hand. He was scared he’d slide back down. That’s when Culbertson looked down at him. Barnes asked him to get a rope. Culbertson got one out of the back of his truck and tied it around the guardrail.
Barnes wrapped it solidly around his wrist, then took “about 10 deep breaths” and hoisted himself up and over the rail. He was out, wet, beat up and sore but not seriously hurt.
Culbertson gave Barnes a ride back north. But first, Barnes said, they warned several southbound drivers away from the bridge before they made the same mistake he had.
Both men said they moved some warning signs at the side of the road into the highway “to warn if somebody else is coming that there’s a hazard, there’s a deathtrap right in front of you,” Barnes said.
Culbertson said he didn’t expect a road closure because the weather seemed fine in Fairbanks and he didn’t check the Alaska 511 road update site. On his way down, he said, he passed signs saying “Be prepared to stop” that he described as typical signs for construction in Alaska. That was before the sideways dump truck.
Barnes said the two men stopped at several points along the way north to try to reach law enforcement so potential rescuers knew he was already out of the truck. They also tried to get different authorities to put up barriers long before the actual bridge to prevent anyone else from getting into trouble.
Asked about the extent and urgency of the warnings about the bridge that night, a state transportation information officer said there were numerous signals before the bridge.
Along with the large dump truck and warning signs, a message board along the highway at Fort Greely at 7:45 p.m. Monday started flashing a message that the Richardson was closed at Bear Creek due to flooding and that drivers should avoid the area, Alaska Department of Transportation spokeswoman Danielle Tessen said. The Alaska 511 site also warned the highway was closed by 9 p.m.
A Thursday update described the road at Bear Creek as completely washed out on both sides of the bridge. The state also identified more than 20 other areas of damage. Crews on both ends of the closure were assessing damage and working on repairs.
The highway was expected to stay closed through the weekend depending on the weather.
By Thursday, Barnes was getting ready to head to a paving job at the Kaltag airport. His beloved truck, twisted and undriveable, sat in the yard at Cable Guy Towing in Delta Junction.
He said he didn’t see any message boards as he drove south on Monday night.
Barnes was sore — ”it feels like Muhammad Ali worked me over” — and still trying to wrap his head around what happened.
He credits Culbertson with his survival and several times expressed gratitude for his help.
But he said he’s also glad he had the strength to pull himself over that guardrail and the savvy to think quickly enough to escape what could have been a deadly situation.
“Living here in Alaska and the way I live, out in the bush, there’s nobody around. You gotta fend for yourself,” Barnes said. “If there’s an issue, you’ve got to think on the fly and you’ve got to deal with it. There’s no Googling, ‘What should I do?’ ”