By Ben Welter
This sounds painfully familiar: A nearly 40-year-old bridge packed with rush-hour traffic collapses suddenly, sending dozens of cars and trucks into the river 80 feet below. It happened one evening nearly 30 years ago on the Ohio River. The “Silver Bridge” connecting Point Pleasant, W.Va., and Kanauga, Ohio, fell down, and 46 people died. A three-year federal investigation blamed the disaster on poor design, poor maintenance, a heavy load — and a one-tenth-of-an-inch manufacturing defect in one of the hundreds of foot-long eyebars that supported the suspension bridge.
The collapse of the Ohio River bridge was the top story the next day in the Minneapolis Tribune:
Many Feared Dead
in Bridge Collapse
Into Ohio River
From The Tribune Wire Services
POINT PLEASANT, W.Va. – A long suspension bridge over an 80-foot-deep channel of the Ohio River collapsed at rush hour Friday, plunging an estimated 75 cars and trucks into the water. Five bodies were recovered but police feared the toll would rise when divers probed the river at daybreak today.
The five dead were at Holzer Hospital in Gallipolis, Ohio, near the bridge’s Ohio end. Four dead men were identified, while the fifth body was that of an unidentified woman.
Official parties from Ohio and West Virginia agreed with the death toll and set the injured at 10 with 14 persons missing or unaccounted for.
Local officials feared the toll would be much higher.
THE IDENTIFIED dead were George McManus of South Point, Ohio, Cecil Counts and Melvin Cantrell of Gallipolis Ferry, W.Va., and Leo Blackman of Richmond, Va.
A witness said almost the entire length of the bridge collapsed “at once with a roar.” He said the bumper-to-bumper vehicles on the span, which links Ohio with West Virginia, were tossed into the water like toys.
Officials said a lock would be closed on the river above the bridge and another opened below the span in an effort to lower the water depth to make the job easier for the divers.
Only its three piers remained standing as the 1,750-foot span – known locally as the “Silver Bridge” because of its coating of aluminum paint – collapsed, with giant steel beams wrapping around and falling on top of cars and trucks.
ONE WITNESS reported that as the bridge fell, “It looked just like a snake wiggling across the river and then it was gone.”
William Needham Jr., 27, a truck driver from Ashboro, N.C., who survived, said, “We hit the water and the truck sank like a rock.”
Needham said he held his breath, pried open a window and swam to the surface where he was plucked from the water by volunteers.
An accurate count of the number of vehicles streaming across the 40-year-old structure was impossible. Aside from the usual heavy flow of commuter traffic from both the Ohio and West Virginia, there was a large number of Christmas shoppers and weekend travelers.
The disaster blocked all traffic on the Ohio River. The Corps of Engineers at Huntington said no boats were moving in the area.
A 300-YARD stretch of the bridge at the Ohio end was over ground. An estimated 35 to 40 automobiles and trucks lay amid the tangle of concrete and steel where this part of the bridge fell. Wrecker trucks and cranes worked at retrieving the smashed vehicles.
Ambulances from cities and towns on both sides of the river, along with police and fire department rescue units, sped to the scene. The area is about 57 miles northwest of Charleston, West Virginia’s capital.
West Virginia Gov. Hulett C. Smith and West Virginia Road Commissioner Burl A. Sawyers left Charleston by car for Point Pleasant, Ohio. Ohio Gov. James A. Rhodes and Ohio Highway director P.F. Masheter left Columbus by plane for the disaster scene.
The bridge belongs to West Virginia. A spokesman for the West Virginia Road Commission said the state bought it from the Ohio-West Virginia Bridge Co. in 1941. The bridge was dedicated in 1928 and was last inspected in April 1965.
In Washington, D.C., Federal Highway Administrator Lowell K. Bridwell announced he was sending a team of bridge experts here to try to determine the cause of the collapse.
|The Tribune’s original caption: TANGLED MASS OF AUTOS, TRUCKS AND BRIDGE STRUCTURE WAS ALL THAT REMAINED|
|The Tribune’s original caption: TRUCKS, AUTOS LAY TWISTED AMID DEBRIS FROM BRIDGE|