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Falling 'ice bombs' terrorize Port Mann drivers, force bridge closure

Like ice bombs falling from the sky.

That's how motorists described their nightmare on the Port Mann Bridge early Wednesday afternoon when giant icicles began to drop from the overhead cables and damage cars.

RCMP closed the new toll bridge in both directions for several hours until about 6 p.m. after many vehicles were hit by the falling ice and two occupants were injured, sending one to hospital.

Several large clumps of ice crashed through car windshields and ICBC has received 107 vehicle damage claims as of Thursday morning.

"There was no way to get around it, there was no way to move – it looked like a meteor shower of snow," said Jared Angell of Abbotsford.

His work truck sports a spider web of cracks in the front windshield and multiple dents to the roof.

"I probably got hit at least 10 times," Angell said. "I wasn't nervous until the windshield shattered, then I started to get nervous. You're hoping another one doesn't hit the same spot."

He was one of at least four drivers with Port Mann ice damage who ended up in the same autobody shop in Abbotsford.

Karl Nylund said he was "freaked out" when ice punched right through the back window of his Subaru as he was inching across the bridge in very slow traffic.

He and others said cars wouldn't have been stuck on the bridge beneath the falling ice for as long had road crews done more about the slippery conditions on Johnson Hill that paralyzed Highway 1 traffic.

Abbotsford's James Lepp was heading back east across the bridge around 1:30 when he realized heavy ice chunks were falling from the overhead cables.

"These were massive thunderous hailstones coming down," he said. "They were a good four or five feet long, 10 inches wide, looked like they weighed 50 or 60 pounds – falling from the sky."

The ice dented his hood and took off the driver's side mirror.

Lepp's immediate thought was that engineers made an error in designing the bridge, perhaps not considering the winter weather here.

"This isn't a rare occurrence – we get snow once in a while. If this happens every time, they have to close the bridge every time."

Lepp posted a photo of the damage to his vehicle on Twitter and other drivers took to social media to denounce bridge engineers as morons.

"Someone designed it for Arizona or California, obviously, not for B.C.," Angell added. "I don't know how it got by that many smart people, but it did."

Provincial officials aren't yet conceding the newly opened bridge, the centrepiece of the $3.3-billion Port Mann/Highway 1 Improvement Project, suffers from any design flaw.

The cables that hold up the bridge run across traffic lanes, connecting the central towers between the twin bridge decks to their outer edges.

Cables staying the Alex Fraser and Golden Ears bridges don't run diagonally above their bridge decks.

Transportation Investment Corp. CEO Mike Proudfoot said engineers are assessing the bridge to determine what went wrong and what can be done to prevent recurrences.

He apologized for what he said has been a "difficult day" for affected motorists.

Proudfoot called it an "extremely unusual" incident due to the combination of snow with a series of freezing and thawing cycles.

Other cable-stayed bridges of similar design also experience falling ice problems, Proudfoot said.

"No bridge is immune to it," he said, noting it has happened occasionally at the Alex Fraser.

Proudfoot said the bridge's design is supposed to ensure snow buildup slides down the cables and over the side and doesn't drop onto the bridge deck.

"This bridge is designed to be compliant with the Canadian bridge highway design code."

Preemptive closures of the bridge could be an option when similar weather conditions are anticipated, he said.

The cables are not heated but Proudfoot said it was too early to say if some deicing retrofit could help.

He said the province will pay the ICBC insurance deductibles of drivers whose vehicles were damaged on the bridge.

It's not yet clear if drivers without comprehensive insurance will be reimbursed or if deductibles will be paid for motorists with optional coverage from other insurers.

Proudfoot also promised drivers who used the Port Mann bridge during the affected hours Wednesday won't be charged tolls, whether their vehicles were damaged or not.

– with files from Kevin Diakiw and Dan Kinvig

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