By Dave Rogers
NEWBURYPORT — A car that plummeted off the Interstate 95/Whittier Bridge into the frigid waters of the Merrimack River shortly after 8 p.m. Monday was discovered in the river at approximately 11:30 p.m., with one occupant inside, state police said.
The body was taken to the U.S. Coast Guard Station in Newburyport, where it was turned over to the office of the chief medical examiner. State police were not identifying the occupant as of last night.
It took public safety and rescue workers more than three hours to locate the vehicle in what was a frantic search in freezing temperatures beneath and around the Whittier Bridge that connects Amesbury to Newburyport.
Two Coast Guard cutters, a helicopter and dive teams from the state police and Coast Guard searched the icy water for any sign of the submerged vehicle. The Amesbury Fire Department deployed its airboat from across the river at Larry's Marina to assist in the search. With the tide coming in, rescue workers focused their search upriver.
According to state police, the car, described by witnesses as a white Toyota sedan, was traveling north over the bridge from Newburyport heading toward Amesbury when, for reasons still under investigation, it vaulted over the snow-covered barriers of the span and fell dozens of feet into the water. A state police official said he didn't know how the car left the highway.
All but one lane of Interstate 95 north was closed to traffic, as dozens of firefighters set up a command post on the north side of the bridge. A state police accident reconstruction team and other rescue personnel were seen combing over a northbound section of the bridge, where officials believe the car may have gone over the side.
Another half-dozen firefighters and rescue personnel were searching the area around the city's pumping station off Spring Lane, while the state dive team entered the water from Cashman Park off Merrimac Street in Newburyport.
The rescue effort drew several dozen onlookers, many of whom congregated on the nearby Chain Bridge between Newburyport and Amesbury, which is closed to all but local traffic while the connecting Hines Bridge is replaced. Some used binoculars to get a closer look. Others joined members of the media outside the pumping station to watch the search.
State police said last night that the investigation into the accident remains ongoing.