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Divers recover body of driver of semi that plunged off I-10 into the River

THE FRAME AND CAB OF THE SEMI truck that plunged into the San Jacinto River last Thursday, June 26 are lifted by a crane on a work barge on Saturday morning. The barge came from T&T Salvage in Galveston, and was required because the bridge and the nearby Waste Pits Superfund site were not suitable for this type of heavy lifting. (Photo by Harris County Sheriff’s Department)

EAST HARRIS COUNTY – For the third time in the last two months, a vehicle has plunged over the side of a highway bridge, and the occupant was killed.

The most recent event occurred Wednesday, July 3 on the I-610 East Loop bridge over the Houston Ship Channel. Authorities reported that an 18-wheeler swerved to miss a car that had cut in front of him, and crashed through the railing and fell 150 to land on the buildings below. Emergency responders attempted to remove the driver from the wreckage, but he was pinned upside down and died at the scene. The driver of the truck was not immediately identified. His rig landed on top of some industrial buildings of Huntsman Chemical Company. They said that no plant employees were injured, but that operations were stopped due to a sanitary sewer line that was severed and leaking. Some traffic lanes on the bridge were closed, as TxDOT studied how to repair the railing.

This fatal accident followed by only a week a similar accident on the I-10 bridge over the San Jacinto River, when an 18-wheeler struck a stopped car and then plummeted over the rail and into the river. In this accident, a sedan driven by two young men had stopped in the westbound lanes of the bridge after being sideswiped by another 18-wheeler that did not stop. A deputy had come upon the scene, and was just getting the information when the second 18-wheeler struck the stopped car and plummeted over the rail into the river below.

The truck’s cab and trailer were submerged under water, and authorities called on divers to search the waters for the missing truck driver. The HCSO Marine Unit, HazMat team, firefighters from Highlands and Crosby, and the Coast Guard helped in the search. Due to the muddy water and the restrictions caused by proximity to the Waste Pits Superfund site, the driver was not found until Friday, in the cab of the semi. He was identified by family as Steve Martinez, 60, of San Antonio.

Sheriff Gonzalez said the cab was buried in mud up to the windshield, and divers could not maneuver in the remaining space, and also had to keep wearing protective gear because of the nearby toxic waste pit material.

After finding the driver, authorities turned to the task of removing the truck from the river. They decided it could not be done from land, and secured a salvage barge from Galveston with a heavy-lift crane for the work.

By Saturday afternoon the salvage work was completed, the truck was lifted from the river in three parts, and the scene had returned to a quiet state.

The location of this accident was just on the other side of the river channel from an accident that occurred in May, when an 18- wheeler struck the side of a car in the westbound lanes of the bridge as it was changing lanes. The collision sent the auto over the railing and through a gap between the eastbound and westbound lanes. The car landed on its roof on the riverbank, and a 4 year old child, Andrea Salas, was killed. She was not in a seat belt, authorities believe. Her parents did survive the fall with only minor injuries. The family was from Honduras, and in this country only a short time.

Authorities cautioned that these accidents occurred from excessive speed, unsafe distance between vehicles, unsafe lane changes, and distractions while driving.