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Thousands stranded on island after dredge snaps N.C. bridge

A fierce ocean storm slammed a 200-foot-long dredge into the only bridge to one of North Carolina's Outer Bank islands early Friday, causing several hundred feet of roadway to tumble into the sea. About 5,000 people were stranded without power, telephones or direct access to the mainland.

No one was injured as large sections of the bridge across Oregon Inlet collapsed in a fiery 2:21 a.m. explosion after the dredge Northerly Island snapped the high-voltage power cables to Hatteras Island.

Four of the 10 crew members on the dredge scrambled up the bridge to safety. The rest remain on board the vessel, which is trapped in the bridge pylons.

Officials said it could take six months or more to repair the 2{-mile-long span that links the island with the Nags Head area. "There is no way to get across that bridge. It's gone, collapsed," said Gwen White, Dare County public information officer.

White said officials were worried that the trapped ocean-going dredge would destroy more of the span before the heavy seas and gale-force winds subsided. The winds, which peaked at gusts of 90 mph, coupled torrential rains with surging seas, causing water to wash across Hatteras at several points. Transportation along the pencil-thin island was impossible, she said.

A Coast Guard official in Portsmouth, Va., said rescue helicopter crews were dispatched Friday to aid the crews of a tugboat and a fishing vessel, which began taking water during the storm off the Carolina coast.

North Carolina Gov. James Martin visited the bridge Friday and promised the state would immediately seek a contractor to repair the soaring, 28-year-old bridge, which already was threatened by severe erosion. A spokeswoman for the Dare County government said officials expect emergency ferry service would be established near the bridge and that utility crews could quickly restore power and telephone service to the island.

The storm brushed up along the Atlantic Coast and caused flooding and power outages in the Virginia Beach area. It was the type of storm that experts have warned can cause severe erosion problems to the fragile barrier islands that line the East Coast.

Dare County officials said Friday they had no immediate reports on the erosion damage on the Outer Banks but said that the heavy seas and winds could have done considerable harm to the beaches there. Robert Young, a researcher with a Duke University group that has monitored beach erosion along the North Carolina coast, said he believed the storm may have moved up the coast too rapidly to have caused extensive damage.