Friday, December 29, 2017

Silver Bridge commemoration — thoughts and observations

Here are my thoughts and such before, during and after attending two of the three ceremonies in Point Pleasant, WVa., and Gallipolis, Ohio, commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Silver Bridge collapse and the 46 people who died in it.

This is based on the article I wrote for The Waterways Journal that appeared in its Dec. 25 issue, but it is longer, as print has space constraints that pixels don’t. Footnotes are at the bottom. Please consider this part of a rough draft of something larger to come.

Photos from the day will be in the next blog post.

The Silver Bridge as seen on a postcard purchased in Gallipolis, Ohio, in the 1970s.

The communities of Point Pleasant, W.Va., and Gallipolis, Ohio, gathered the morning and evening of Friday, Dec. 15, to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the Silver Bridge disaster.

At 4:58 p.m. on Friday, Dec. 15, 1967, a structural member of the bridge connecting the two communities failed and the bridge fell into the Ohio River, carrying 46 people to their deaths.

At 11 a.m. on the 50th anniversary, about 400 people — many of them with a family or personal connection to someone on the bridge — gathered in Point Pleasant on Sixth Street, which led to the bridge itself. Bill Edmondson, 88, a truck driver from North Carolina, who went into the river and was rescued, was one of them. (1)

A tent covered the street and heaters were in place to keep people warm. West Virginia’s two U.S. senators were in attendance, as was Brandye Hendrickson, acting administrator of the Federal Highway Administration.

The names of each of the 46 victims of the disaster was read aloud by Mayor Brian Billings. Martha and Ruth Fout from the Point Pleasant Museum and Learning Center rang a bell after each name.

“Out of ashes comes comes beauty, it is said, and the nationwide attention that the collapse generated drastically changed the way that we approach bridge safety,” Hendrickson said in her keynote address.

“The Silver Bridge tragedy propelled the nation into a new era of bridge safety, and it was made official the following year when Congress called for a national bridge inspection program.” (2)

At the end of the ceremony, a design for a floodwall mural at the bridge site was unveiled. Painted on the side of the floodwall facing traffic, the mural will show how the approach to the bridge looked from Point Pleasant. (3)

That evening, smaller ceremonies in both Point Pleasant and Gallipolis around the time of the bridge collapse also memorialized the victims. (4)

Many people talked about the immediate reaction to the disaster.

The Racine Locks and Dam, about 28 miles up the Ohio from Point Pleasant, was under construction at the time of the collapse. Dravo Corp., the general contractor for the project, sent two 50-ton derrick boats to help with the recovery effort. The M.T. Epling Co. of Gallipolis supplied two derrick boats also. The Huntington District of the Army Corps of Engineers sent the mv. Robert G. West and floating plant from the Marietta Repair Station to assist.

A navigation channel was opened Dec. 21. By then, 39 towboats with 178 empty and 202 loaded barges were waiting to transit the area, according to “Men, Mountains and Rivers,” the official history of the Huntington District.

The bodies of two of the 46 victims were never found.

At the Gallipolis ceremony, state Rep. Ryan Smith (5) noted there were three people whose deaths were linked to the Silver Bridge. After the bridge collapse, Ohio residents who worked at the Goodyear chemical plant at Apple Grove, W.Va., about 1.5 miles below the Gallipolis Locks and Dam, used small boats to cross the river to and from work. (6) Their path took them below the plant’s barge dock. One day in March 1968, one of the boats went around the upstream end of a barge moored there, lost power and was pulled under the barge by the current. Three men died. (7)

As Hendrickson noted, the memorial service marked how the disaster changed the nation’s bridge inspection program. Before the Silver Bridge collapse, bridge inspections often were usually two men with binoculars looking for maintenance problems.

The Silver Bridge’s fatal flaw could not have been detected that way. It was one of two bridges in the United States to be built with an eyebar suspension system. Instead of cables bearing the structure’s weight, the Silver Bridge used a system resembling a bicycle chain to hold up the bridge deck. One of the eyebar joints had a defect from the time it was built. The flaw was inside the joint and could not have been detected without taking the bridge apart. When the joint broke apart, the whole chain failed and the bridge fell into the cold waters of the Ohio. (8)

Now, all bridges are inspected at least every other year, and bridges with deficiencies are inspected at least once a year.

Replacing the river crossing at Point Pleasant received the highest priority from President Lyndon Johnson and others. Two years to the day after the Silver Bridge fell, the Silver Memorial Bridge opened to traffic. Unlike the old bridge, the new one was four lanes instead of two. And instead of placing traffic into downtown Point Pleasant, the new bridge connected with West Virginia about half a mile down the Ohio and on the other side of the Kanawha River. (9)

There was one other bridge of the Silver Bridge’s design, and it, too, was on the Ohio, at St. Marys, W.Va. It was known as the Hi Carpenter Bridge. After the Silver Bridge collapse, it was closed to traffic and dismantled. Eventually it was replaced with a bridge similar to the Silver Memorial Bridge, except it has a sidewalk. (10)

Part of the old Hi Carpenter Bridge remains. It connects St. Marys with an island that is home to a park and a wildlife refuge. Long-range plans call for it to be replaced by a modern structure.

One person at the ceremony who did not speak was Tracy Brown, a district bridge engineer for the West Virginia Division of Highways and a Silver Bridge historian. (11)

“There’s not a day go by that I don’t think of the Silver Bridge,” Brown said. He said he always tells his bridge inspectors that if they ever feel like leaving early on a Friday to remember what happened at Point Pleasant.

“This is the reason we do what we do every day,” he said. “We just do whatever it takes to prevent another Silver Bridge from happening, because failure is not an option.”
Brown said he has a video of the Silver Bridge collapse and recovery operations. He said he has every new employee in his office watch it.

“I hope that will help them understand what this job is and to get it right and do it correctly,” he said. (12)

(1) I was one of them. I wasn’t notified until mid-afternoon that my coverage of the day’s events would be needed. I was there because the bridge and its history have always interested me. I was 13 years old when the bridge collapsed. My family lived about 15 miles away. I was watching a sitcom rerun on TV when the news bulletin came across that the bridge had fallen. The event tore a big hole in the two communities, the way disasters tend to do. Six and a half years later, as a sophomore at Ohio University, the professor in my history of journalism class assigned us a long paper about either the history of a publication or looking at a news event as it was covered by media at that time. I chose coverage of the Silver Bridge collapse in print media. The day after the collapse, I remember standing on a pile of corn in the family’s corn crib thinking about the event and what it must be like to be there watching the recovery efforts. Every now and then I would check the TV to see if there were any updates.

(2) Before the ceremony, I was told that speakers were asked to not mention the Mothman legend. And none did. Organizers of the ceremony didn’t want the honoring of the victims to be diminished by bringing up something that had nothing to do with the collapse.

(3) Sixth Street no longer leads to the part of the floodwall where the bridge ramp went over it. Instead it ends at a small park noting the disaster and the people who died in it.

(4) The evening ceremonies in Point Pleasant and Gallipolis were scheduled to begin around the same time. I could attend only one, so I chose the one in Gallipolis, in part because I needed to see how people on that side of the river commemorated the event.

(5) My great-nephew.

(6) This was near where my family lived. I often watched them park their cars and walk to the river bank. They crossed the river in motorboats around the time a truck came from Goodyear to its river dock where barges were delivered one at a time. I don’t remember if barges were emptied or loaded there, but I’m thinking they were emptied. The dock consisted of two large structures known as deadmen. The truck ferried the men to the plant and back.

(7) This incident still draws out emotions among people who remember it. I plan to do some research on it soon.

(8) The parts of the Silver Bridge that were removed from the water and from the river banks were placed in a field along the Ohio below the mouth of the Kanawha and examined to determine the cause of the structure’s failure.

(9) I don’t know if this was the beginning of troubles for downtown Point Pleasant, but losing all that traffic couldn’t have helped. The downtown would have had its troubles anyway, just as central business districts in other cities have, but losing that volume of vehicles had to have accelerated the decline.

(10) The sidewalk gives a wonderful view of St. Marys.

(11) I’m saying this as a compliment: Don’t ask Tracy Brown about the Silver Bridge if you have only a few minutes. I talked with him by phone before the event, and it was a long conversation as a bridge engineer and a river nerd shared information they had gathered over the years. Someone at the place where I used to work told me once that I don’t engage in schmoozing. I engage in nerd bonding.

(12) The Silver Bridge was the beginning of a decade of disasters in West Virginia. In 1968 came the coal mine explosion at Farmington, which killed 78 people. November 1970 saw the crash of the plane carrying the Marshall University football team and boosters. All 70 people aboard were killed. Then in 1972 came the Buffalo Creek flood when a coal slurry impoundment dam burst, killing 125 people. There was the Tug Fork flood in early 1977. And in April 1978, concrete in a cooling tower under construction at the Pleasants Power Station near Willow Island failed, causing scaffolding to collapse and kill 51 construction workers.