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Truck drops Caterpillar off Duluth bridge, damages I-35

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DULUTH, Minn. -- A Caterpillar earth scraper fell off a flatbed trailer coming down U.S. Highway 53 and plunged more than 40 feet to the ground below Wednesday morning, clipping an elevated section of northbound Interstate 35 during its fall.

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Several people were injured in the accident, and the left lane of northbound I-35 will be closed indefinitely for repairs.

"We are going to have to replace one of the beams for sure, so we'll have to cut some of the deck out and some of the railing out," said Duane Hill, a MnDOT assistant district engineer for maintenance. "That's probably going to be a month or two process."

The chain-reaction accident happened shortly after 10 a.m.

"It is under investigation and there are a lot of unknowns," Minnesota State Patrol Sgt. Mark Baker said. "The vehicle hauling the Caterpillar was southbound on Piedmont and for whatever reason lost control, and the Cat ended up going over the edge."

At least two pickup trucks and an SUV were waiting at the stoplights at the base of the hill when they were hit by the flatbed truck, said Mitch Peterson, Duluth Fire Department assistant chief.

Two adults and two children were transported to St. Mary's Medical Center after the accident.

James Jablonski, 22, of Duluth, was in one of the vehicles, a 2000 Ford Explorer; he was treated and released.

Darci Trebil, 39, of Sault Ste. Marie, Mich., and two children ages 2 and 3 were removed from another vehicle, Peterson said. Trebil was trapped and had to be extricated from her vehicle and placed on a backboard.

The Minnesota State Patrol said later that Trebil suffered no apparent injury. The 2-year-old suffered non-life threatening injuries, but the Patrol did not have a condition update for the 3-year-old.

The driver of the 2000 Ford pickup Trebil rode in, Jared Lee of Sault Ste. Marie, was not injured. David Tuominen, 46, of Duluth, also escaped uninjured. He was in a 2005 Chevrolet pickup.

Peterson said it was lucky that no one was hurt worse and that the earthmover just nicked the elevated portion of I-35.

"It could have landed right in the middle of it and dropped it," he said.

The Caterpillar 613C elevator scraper, which weighs about 33,600 pounds, damaged three of the five beams supporting the interstate. Hill said the lane closure should ensure that there are no structural problems with I-35 before the beams are repaired.

"That should be able to carry the [vehicle] loads," he said.

The scraper also took out a stoplight when it fell from Highway 53, Hill said, but he didn't know when that would be replaced.

At 7:30 p.m., two heavy-duty tow trucks were loading the scraper onto a flatbed. Lake City Towing owner Jay Thompson estimated it would take about half an hour to move the piece of equipment, which had landed upside down.

Fire department personnel were on the scene for about 90 minutes, Peterson said. The hazardous materials team responded and stopped a fuel leak on the earthmover.

Bob Gibbons said he was on the phone Wednesday morning at his office in Like New II Automotive when he felt vibrations ripple through his building.

"With the bridge there you always kind of feel something when a big truck comes by, but this was different," Gibbons said. His office is located just underneath the "Can of Worms" Interstate exchange. "This time it vibrated really bad. I've never felt something like that before."

Gibbons didn't put together what had happened until he saw a stream of reporters race past his building and followed them outside.

"That's when I saw this big scraper that had fallen off the bridge. I knew that's what I had felt," he said.

News Tribune staff writers Steve Kuchera, John Myers, Sarah Horner, Brandon Stahl and Will Ashenmacher contributed to this report.

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