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Florida Army National Guard Secures Escambia Bay Bridge

By Maj. Eurydice Stanley
Special to American Forces Press Service

PENSACOLA, Fla., Sept. 20, 2004 – The Escambia Bay Bridge on Interstate 10 is the gateway of travel to points west of Florida, and it serves as the entrance to the Sunshine State for eastbound travelers. Everyone will have to find an alternate route for now.

A storm surge and massive waves initiated by Hurricane Ivan, a Category 3 hurricane with 130-mph winds, pummeled Pensacola and surrounding areas Sept. 16 and washed out the bridge. There was one fatality, when a truck driver tried to cross the bridge during the hurricane. The driver's body was recovered Sept. 17, according to law-enforcement sources.

Guardsmen from Company C, 2nd Battalion, 124th Infantry Regiment, were tasked with providing security and preventing civilians from entering the compromised bridge. Army Spc. Mario Mendoza, of St. Petersburg, serves as the security team leader and helps guard the bridge, along with Army Pfcs. Jeffrey Freimuth, of Sebring; Kyle Mosley, of St. Augustine; and Jesse Vavaro, of Tampa. The soldiers have served on hurricane-relief efforts since Hurricane Charley hit Florida more than a month ago.

One would think guards might not be necessary for a washed-out bridge, but motorists continue to disregard the "Bridge out, exit now" signs posted by state troopers, according to Sgt. Eric Plummer of the Florida Highway Patrol. He said the guards are there to prevent inattentive motorists from killing themselves.

According to Plummer, a motorist approached the bridge in excess of 70 mph Sept. 17 and would not stop until Plummer drew his weapon and stood directly in his path. The motorist stopped within 100 feet of the bridge and was given two choices -- turn around or go to jail. He turned around.

Plummer said his interaction with the National Guard has been positive. "They're all professional and seem to know what they're doing. They are more than willing to help people," said Plummer.

Mendoza pointed to a vehicle abandoned on the bridge after a motorist attempted to cross during the storm and could not pass the sections that had shifted. After turning around, the motorist found the bridge entrance had shifted, leaving impassable crumbled asphalt. The motorist deserted the car and evacuated on foot.

The 2nd Battalion, 124th Infantry Regiment is preparing to deploy to Afghanistan in May for a year. Mendoza is sure the experience the team gained during security missions for hurricanes Charley, Frances and Ivan will assist in preparing for their duty overseas. "I'm sure we'll have security checkpoints in Afghanistan, only here we're dealing with Americans," he said. "In Afghanistan, we could be dealing with suicide bombers."

Mendoza is ready to go overseas, but said he will miss his family ---wife, Neyvis and 10-month-old daughter, Isabella. The Escambia Bay Bridge is a main artery to Alabama and the western part of the United States. The bridge averaged 40,000-50,000 travelers daily, and remains unstable and impassable as segments continue to collapse. The closed bridge will have a significant impact on the expeditious distribution of supplies and materials during hurricane-relief efforts, officials said. Travel is being rerouted through Highway 90 during repair.

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