LAVAL, Quebec – At least five people were crushed to death in their cars after the collapse of an overpass near Montreal, Quebec provincial police said Sunday.
There appeared to have been some advance warning signs of trouble with the overpass in Laval, part of the Greater Montreal Area. One witness told TVA television network that he noticed the road had sunk an inch or two when he traveled over the overpass minutes before the collapse and he called emergency dispatchers.
An inspector from Transport Quebec, the provinces transportation ministry, was sent to the site about 30 minutes before the tragedy but the overpass remained open. Transport Quebec spokeswoman Josee Seguin said the department heard about an hour before the accident that some pieces of concrete were falling off the overpass. She said Transport Quebec then issued an advisory to traffic reporters on the debris.
Not long after that, a 65-foot stretch of three lanes of a viaduct collapsed, sending several other vehicles crashing onto Highway 19 below.
"It is a viaduct that had never, until now, shown any signs of weakness," said Laval Mayor Gilles Vaillancourt. "It wasn't on the list of viaducts and bridges that needed to be repaired or replaced."
Seguin said the overpass was built in 1970. Vaillancourt said it had passed an inspection test last year.
The crushed cars were pulled out about 15 hours after Saturday's dramatic lunchtime accident. Firefighters and other workers had to use cranes and other heavy machinery to painstakingly break up the concrete into as many as 18 huge slabs, including a pedestrian sidewalk.
Vehicles were crushed so badly they barely reached the knees of one firefighter when lifted from under tons of concrete rubble Sunday.
Three people were found in one car and two other bodies were recovered from the other car trapped by the falling concrete, police spokeswoman Isabelle Gendron said.
"At this point, the rescue operation is completed," Gendron said, noting that no other vehicles were trapped beneath the concrete.
Police said six people were injured, including two who were listed in critical condition, when a minivan and a motorcycle plunged off the overpass.
Doctors at Sacre-Coeur Hospital in Montreal said some of those injured had improved overnight but gave no further details.
Robert Hotte, one of the injured, was driving over the viaduct when the road in front of him began to disappear.
"I was wondering ... what is happening," he said. "As we went down with the bridge, my first words were to say 'Anne-Marie,' the name of my girlfriend. We went down, falling with the bridge. It was all dark."
The vehicle crashed into the debris below, landing on the passenger side window. The two crawled out a window, waiting for a few minutes in a police car for an ambulance to arrive and take them to the hospital.
Hotte suffered minor injuries and was released after X-rays. His girlfriend remained in the hospital in stable condition on Sunday with some internal bleeding, Hotte said.
It was the second serious overpass collapse in Laval in the last six years.
In 2000, a man died when a section of overpass that had been under construction for six months collapsed and eight 70-ton beams fell on the car he was riding in.
A coroner's report later concluded a construction company did not properly secure the concrete beams, and accused the province's construction industry of shoddy work and questionable corporate practices.