The Veterans Memorial Bridge over the Susquehanna River between Columbia and Wrightsville reopened Sunday after mayflies forced its closure Saturday night, police said.
Thousands and thousands of mayflies swarmed the lights on the Route 462 bridge, died and fell to the road, causing three motorcycle crashes, a fire official said. The coating of dead mayflies (also called shadflies) was about an inch thick.
At 10:30 p.m., a motorist stopped at the Wrightsville Fire Department station and reported an eastbound motorcycle had crashed on the Wrightsville side of the bridge, Wrightsville Fire Chief Chad Livelsberger said. Firefighters encountered a surreal scene.
“It was like a blizzard in June, but instead of snow, it was mayflies,” Livelsberger said. Dead mayflies about an inch thick covered a large section of the bridge.
“It was very slick, almost like ice,” the chief said. “It was hard to stop, in the engine and the vehicles.” Livelsberger’s pickup truck skidded to a stop. “When you go to pull out, all your tires would do was spin.”
The black mayflies are close to 2 inches long and a quarter-inch wide, Livelsberger said. “It looks like a meal worm with wings.”
While tending the motorcyclist, emergency responders saw another eastbound motorcycle crash onto its side at the slight bend in the road near the Wrightsville side of the bridge.
Columbia Borough Fire Chief Scott Ryno arrived and agreed with Livelsberger that dangerous conditions warranted closing the road, Livelsberger said.
“Visibility was zero for maybe a quarter mile (across the bridge) from the York County shore,” he said. There were not as many mayflies on the Columbia side of the bridge, but enough to cause a third motorcycle crash close to the Columbia shore just before the road was shut down around 11 p.m.
Traffic crawled across the bridge before it was shut down amidst the mayflies invasion.
“They were getting in our mouth,” he said. “We had to close our eyes. We had to swat them away. Even when we got back, it felt like bugs were crawling in you.”
Mayflies flew in their shirts and holes in their vehicles, Livelsberger said. More than a hundred mayflies flew into his personal vehicle in the time it took him to open the door and get inside.
“We had to rip our radiators off” to clean the bugs out, he said.
A PennDOT crew used a street sweeper to clean the mayflies from the bridge, he said. Fire police reopened the road around midnight, after the swarm of mayflies began to wane.
Three men suffered minor road rashes in the motorcycle crashes and did not require medical transport, Livelsberger said. He believes all the wrecks were not serious enough to be reportable, but the motorcycles were damaged.
Livelsberger grew up in Wrightsville and has served as chief since 2012 and in other positions at the fire company since 1998.
“I never saw anything like it,” he said of Thursday night’s mayflies invasion. Last year, mayflies piled up on the sidewalks along the bridge but “that did no justice to what we saw (Thursday night). I never saw the bridge get that covered with mayflies that it impaired people’s driving.”
Livelsberger did not know whether to expect a similar explosion of mayflies again in coming days. No special monitoring is planned, he said, but firefighters will be ready to respond to any reports the bugs are back.
West Hempfield Township police Officer Brad Rohrbaugh could not confirm how many accidents there were, saying Wrightsville police and Columbia Borough police also investigate crashes on the portions of the bridge stretching over land.
Those departments did not immediately return phone calls Sunday.
Livelsberger blamed the new type of lighting on the Route 462 bridge with attracting the mayflies. The bridge’s new art deco lights were installed last year as part of a $2.1 million renovation project.
Experts explained the mayflies phenomenon last year.
The bugs hatch from the Susquehanna River and gravitate en masse to the lights.
For years, the bridge was lit by lights on long poles well above the decking. But the new lights, placed on where they were when the bridge opened in 1930, are only about 10 feet above the road surface.
That’s like a magnet for emerging mayflies, who mate in large clouds. The males die promptly while the females lay their eggs and then also die.
There are reportedly more than 300 very similar looking species of mayflies in Pennsylvania.
The effort to restore the lights to their original appearance was a long effort headed by Rivertownes PA USA, a nonprofit group.
Columbia Mayor Leo Lutz last year said residents liked the historically correct new appearance of the bridge and boaters liked the lights because they could see rocks in the river while fishing at night.