NEW ORLEANS -- The day after a New Orleans police officer drove off an opened drawbridge into the Industrial Canal, the Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development acknowledged that the barricade that normally dropped to block the road has been broken for some time.
Meanwhile, a team of investigators from the state transportation department descended Wednesday on New Orleans to examine what aspects of the mechanics and operation of the Judge Seeber Bridge failed, sending Detective Tommie Felix, 43, plunging to his death in the early hours Tuesday.
The broken barricade, a thick metal structure that might stop a car as well as warn its driver, could have saved Felix's life.
But other safety mechanisms should have required the bridge operator to drop a railroad crossing gate -- a thin railing equipped with flashing lights -- before the bridge could be lifted, said Mark Lambert, a spokesman for the agency.
Witnesses told New Orleans Police Department investigators that this gate did not lower into the road and warn Felix on Tuesday about 2 a.m. when the veteran NOPD officer drove onto the bridge. Felix, who was off duty, was driving on Claiborne Avenue, heading west out of the Lower 9th Ward.
"That is where a good part of the investigation has to focus," Lambert said. "If those arms have to go down before the bridge goes up, how is it that the arm was up and the bridge was up?"
Investigators also will look at the actions of the bridge operator, who as part of standard protocol would be required to "make some visual contact" that the rail arms were down, Lambert said. But he noted that the lack of street lighting on the bridge -- almost all the street lights on the bridge were dark Tuesday night, the evening after the accident -- could have made it difficult for the operator to confirm the position of the gate.
Lambert said the state transportation department had not determined how long the secondary barricade has been out of operation, but said it may have stopped working before Hurricane Katrina. He also could not say if maintenance of the street lights on the bridge, which is run by the state agency, are a transportation department responsibility.
--- Earlier complaints ---
Residents of the Lower 9th Ward have complained in recent months that the lack of lighting on the bridge creates a safety hazard, but they never received clear answers from the state transportation department about who is responsible for the lights, said Vanessa Gueringer, chairwoman for the neighborhood's chapter of ACORN.
DOTD investigators, including workers from the local district and a team from Baton Rouge, also will examine other local drawbridges to determine if they meet safety standards, Lambert said.
"We are trying to get this investigation done as quickly as possible so we can find some answers to see if we can prevent something like this from happening again," said Lambert, adding that transportation Secretary William Ankner and other agency employees are distraught about Felix's death. "Everyone is thinking about this officer's family and children."
Other agencies are looking into the accident, including fatality investigators with the New Orleans Police Department and the state Office of Risk Management, which handles insurance claims against the state. J.S. "Bud" Thompson Jr., the risk director for the state, said an adjuster began an inspection of the site Wednesday.
As both the transportation department and NOPD continue their investigations, officers who knew Felix tried to understand the loss of a 17-year veteran, a husband and father of five children. The loss of Felix, combined with the odd nature of his death, hit his colleagues hard.
"How do you face a gun so many times, kick in doors so many times on the job, face danger all the time, then drive off a bridge when the gate isn't down?" said his supervisor, Maj. Michael Glasser. "How perverse is that? It's like God was sleeping at the wheel on this one."
--- Felix 'did it all' ---
Felix, a longtime narcotics officer, was a dedicated, hard-working officer who rarely complained and always went above and beyond the call of duty, colleagues said. They used words like even-tempered, jovial, hard-working, and trustworthy to describe their peer.
"Tommie was one of these guys that did it all," Glasser said. Unremarkable in appearance but superior in intelligence, Felix could blend into crowds and work undercover drug buys.
Many officers remember Felix as the officer who sustained several gunshots in a 1995 shootout with a burglary suspect. A bulletproof vest spared him. Yet, later in his career, he routinely eschewed a safety vest and handgun to work undercover.
"This is a guy who took several bullets and came right back to the same job," Glasser said.
Another former supervisor, Lt. Bruce Little, recalled Felix's upbeat attitude in even the worst situations.
"You could call him at 3 a.m. and ask him to watch a house for a few hours," Little said. "He'd come in at 8 a.m. with a smile on his face. He'd never complain."
--- Divers find body, car ---
Felix drove off the bridge into water at least 25 feet deep at 2:05 a.m., according to an NOPD news release. The local Coast Guard station first received word of the accident at 2:10 a.m. via a telephone call from the operator on the bridge, Coast Guard Lt. Geralyn Mobley said.
"We received a report there was a vehicle in the water," she said.
Within two minutes, the Coast Guard dispatched a 25-foot boat from the Bucktown station with several members on board, Their trip was delayed because a train was passing over a closed drawbridge on the route, Mobley said. The response boat arrived underneath the Judge Seeber Bridge at 2:52 a.m.
The Coast Guard boat used searchlights to scan for survivors. Meanwhile, officers talked to the bridge operator and witnesses.
"We were trying to figure out what happened," Mobley said.
The Harbor Police sent out their boat about 4 a.m., but their officers were unable to find the vehicle. By 10 a.m., a Coast Guard boat equipped with sonar, a Harbor Police boat and a dive team contracted by the Harbor Police were combing the scene.
That's when the sonar boat located an "inconsistency" at the bottom of the canal, Mobley said. Divers found Felix inside his car about 11:15 a.m.