Coroner identifies bridge crash victims

cwinston@thestate.comJanuary 17, 2014 

— The Richland County coroner identified the West Columbia woman and Columbia man who drowned in the Congaree River after the 9:40 p.m. crash on the Blossom Street bridge on Thursday night.

Killed were Shannon Y. Mickens, 40, and Denzel E. Whyatt Jr., 35, said Richland County Coroner Gary Watts.

Whyatt was driving the 1999 Ford Explorer traveling West when it swerved into the side of the bridge railing and plunged into the Congaree River, Watts said.

Mickens was pulled from the river while the vehicle was still in the water and transported to Palmetto Richland Memorial Hospital, where she was pronounced dead at 11:16 p.m. Whyatt was found in the vehicle after it was pulled from the chilly waters. He was pronounced dead at the scene around 1:30 a.m.

Investigators are looking for “any and all” information that may determine what led to the vehicle’s plunge into the Congaree.

What will take longer is determining what happened before the green SUV, traveling west across the bridge from Columbia toward Cayce, left the roadway and crashed through the concrete and metal guardrail.

Possibilities include a catastrophic problem with the vehicle, distracted driving, impaired driving and speed. Figuring out which caused the crash, if it is ever determined, could take days – or longer.

The Columbia Police Department is handling the investigation. Spokeswoman Jennifer Timmons said Friday that investigators will not rush and will not release much preliminary information. Instead, investigators will focus on doing a “thorough job.”

One witness, possibly driving the only other vehicle on the bridge when the crash occurred, has provided valuable information, Timmons said. But investigators are looking for “any and all” information from other witnesses.

Timmons said investigators hope anyone with information about the couple, their whereabouts or their state of mind will call, too.

She urges anyone who heard or saw anything near the bridge to call the department at (803) 545-3500 or Crimestoppers at 888-CRIME-SC.

“We are going to determine, to the best that we can, exactly what happened,” she said.

Friday afternoon, crews with the South Carolina Department of Transportation worked to put a guard rail in as a fix for the gap in the bridge’s railing caused by the crash.

With the guard rail, the bridge is safe for traffic and pedestrians, said Lee Floyd, S.C. DOT state bridge maintenance engineer.

He said because the damage was fixed, the bridge’s safety isn’t compromised.

The original railing has been on the bridge since it was constructed in 1953. The DOT said the bridge has undergone two rehabilitations since it was built. One was in the mid-1980s. The second was a painting and beautification project in the 1990s.

The almost 60-year-old Blossom Street bridge is older than the average age of South Carolina state-owned bridges, which is 43 years.

Floyd said the Blossom Street bridge was inspected last month and deemed decent condition.

“For its age, it was in good shape,” he said.

The last major incident on the bridge occurred in 2008, when 19-year-old Jesse Gamble died after being hit while riding home from work in a bridge bike lane. The lane was renamed Jesse’s Way in his honor. 

A similar river-related incident occurred in 2004, when a cement truck plunged off the I-126 bridge over the Broad River near downtown Columbia. It landed right-side-up in a ravine, leaving the driver with only minor injuries.

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