Crucial steel cables had corroded inside the pedestrian bridge that collapsed Saturday night at Lowe's Motor Speedway, injuring 107 people, according to a bridge inspector.
Don Idol, an assistant bridge inspection engineer with the state's Department of Transportation, said Sunday that he saw rusted steel cables protruding from the broken concrete spans that lay across southbound lanes of U.S. 29. He also saw several 3-foot cracks underneath three remaining spans, obvious signs, he said, of possible problems inside the bridge.
"Cracks would have been a flag for us," Idol said as teams of engineers and construction-disaster experts examined the 80-foot section that shuddered, then collapsed under the weight of fans leaving the speedway.
"It's still very early, but my initial reaction is that these cables were exposed to moisture and they became corroded," Idol said. "And that would have weakened the bridge."
The state periodically inspected the bridge as it was being built and gave a final okay.
Speedway president H.A. "Humpy" Wheeler said he didn't know when the bridge, completed in 1995, was last inspected. Neither his staff nor contractors had reported finding cracks in either of the track's two pedestrian bridges.
"It's much, much too early right now to come to any conclusion about what happened," Wheeler said. "We're trying to keep an open mind about everything."
The bridge connects the speedway to nearby parking lots, letting fans avoid crossing four-lane U.S. 29. It collapsed about 11:15 p.m. Saturday as fans headed for their cars after The Winston, NASCAR's all-star race that was won by Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Area hospitals admitted 53 victims; two remained in critical condition Sunday.
"It was an amazing sight; everyone disappeared," said Mike Aquino, 41, of Atlanta, who was treated for minor injuries. "There was a mass of people, and then they were all gone. For a split second, I was thinking I was going to die, and then I realized I was going to live."
It happened too quickly for terror, victims would say later.
Piercing screams filled the humid night air as adults and children slid and tumbled to the highway 17 feet below in a jumble of broken concrete, coolers, sneakers and grills.
"I heard it crack the first time, and the second time it went down," Greg Southern said. "It was just awful."
"All of a sudden, the bottom fell out from everybody," said Roger Dunham, who had just started across the bridge.
Dunham counted himself lucky, even though he spent Sunday being given painkillers for a back injury. He recalled his concern for a girl who was walking in front of him when the walkway fell.
"The first thing I thought of was that little 3-year-old girl who was underneath the whole pile," Dunham said. "I wanted to help people who were hurt a lot worse than I was, but I couldn't do much. All I could do was hold this guy's head who was bleeding."
Dunham said he never found the girl, but learned she wasn't seriously injured.
Jim Hill was five or six steps from the ramp when trouble began: "I heard one crack, a second crack, then all of a sudden there was nothing under me."
Within a minute, medics were on the scene, pulling people out of the pile, treating those who staggered around or flopped to the ground. Others pulled away sections of fence away so victims could be freed.