Tuesday, March 13, 2018

The other victims of the Silver Bridge collapse

The number given when count the number of victims of the Silver Bridge disaster is 46. That was the number of people on the bridge when it fell into the Ohio River on Dec. 15, 1967, and who died from the collapse.

Some people say the number should be 47, as one of the bridge’s victims was pregnant.

And there is the question of whether the number could be increased by two to account for two men who might not have died had the bridge not fallen.

When the Silver Bridge collapsed, the communities of Point Pleasant, W.Va., and Gallipolis, Ohio, were severed temporarily as far as transportation was concerned. In many ways, the two communities were one economically and still are. Much of the commercial activity was on the Ohio side while the industrial activity was on the West Virginia side.

The lack of a highway crossing after the bridge collapse presented a problem for people — mostly if not all men — who lived in Ohio and worked at the Goodyear plastics plant at Apple Grove, W.Va., about a mile to a mile and a half below the Gallipolis Locks and Dam, now the Robert C. Byrd Locks and Dam.

At that time river crossings were much fewer than they were today. Most of the Ohio River bridges in the area had been built in the 1920s, and the highway infrastructure rebuild that had been underway for about 20 years had not yet reached the point where construction of new bridges was ready to begin. Huntington, W.Va., got a new bridge in 1967 as part of the construction of Interstate 64 in West Virginia and the four-laning of U.S. 52 in Ohio, but that bridge was on the far end of town from people who needed to use it to get to Goodyear.

The dock of the former Goodyear plant at Apple Grove, W.Va., as seen from the Ohio shore in 2015. In 1968, the deadman pier on the left had not been installed. Also, the two towers seen in the shore had not yet been built.

The Pomeroy-Mason Bridge was closest to the Silver Bridge, but it was about 15 miles up the river. Using it would add 30 miles to each commute one way, plus driving through Middleport in Ohio and Point Pleasant in West Virginia.

Down the river, the Sixth Street Bridge in Huntington was 46 miles from the Silver Bridge. If you lived right across the Ohio from Goodyear, that would be 30 miles down and 30 miles back up, and it could mean running into rush hour traffic on the Ohio side, which often stretched for miles.

The solution for many workers was taking motor boats across the river from the unincorporated community of Bladen, Ohio, to Goodyear.

I was a teenager living on the Ohio side of the river, and the Goodyear plant was always in view when I looked east toward West Virginia. Many of the men who worked at Goodyear parked their cars on an unused part of old Ohio Route 7, abandoned when the state replaced the old road with the new road in the late 1940s or early 1950s. They walked through a local resident's yard, around the back side of the small building he used as a shop, and down to the river bank. There were several makeshift docks where they tied their boats.

Every day they would take their motorboats across the river to the Goodyear dock and climb the bank, where a truck would be waiting to take them to the plant. At the end of their shift, the truck would bring them back to the river bank. Some Goodyear workers had old cars parked on the West Virginia side.

It was either that or wait on the ferry between Henderson, W.Va., near Point Pleasant, and Kanauga, Ohio, near Gallipolis. The ferry could handle maybe 35 cars per hour.

In the early hours of March 14, 1968, an accident took the lives of two Goodyear workers on their cross-river commute.

According to an article in The Gallipolis Daily Tribune by Hobart Wilson Jr.: from that day:

“A broken shearing pin on a small motor boat resulted in the apparent drowning of two Goodyear Chemical Plant officials early this morning.

“Victims of the second Ohio River tragedy in this area within three months were identified as Earl Prose, 43, of 542 Third Ave., Gallipolis, and Lewis G. Fellure, 32, of Rt. 218.

"Prose and Fellure, along with two other Goodyear employees, Carl Meredith, 23,419 Hedgewood Dr., Gallipolis, and Wayne M. (Bud) Davis, 33, of 183 Brentwood Drive, Grandview Subdivision, were headed from the West Virginia shore to the Ohio shore around 12:20 a.m. when the tragedy occurred. They had just completed work at the nearby Goodyear plant at Apple Grove.

“According to Mrs. Wayne Davis in a telephone conversation with the Tribune this morning, the four had been using a small motor boat (three horsepower engine) to cross the Ohio River since the collapse of the Silver Bridge last Dec. 15. ...

“According to Mrs, Davis, shortly after the men started across this morning, a shearing pin broke on the small craft. Unable to guide it in the rough waters, the craft rammed and went under a barge tied up at. the Goodyear docks.

“It capsized. All four went into the chilly river. All four came up. Each man had a life jacket on according to Mrs. Davis.

“ ‘They communicated with each other immediately after the boat capsized,’ remarked Mrs. Davis.

“The strong current carried Meredith and Davis down stream approximately one mile before they managed to reach the West Virginia .shore.

“An effort to locate Prose and Fellure from the shore failed. The two survivors rushed back to the plant and called for help. …

“After an all-night search, the bodies of Prose and Fellure were found around 9:10 a.m., today at Burlington, O., near South Point, after being spotted by the towboat Franklin B., some 35 miles from where the incident occurred.

“Twenty-five minutes earlier, the small boat in which the men were riding was spotted from a towboat near Proctorville, by Howard Boggs, whose wife and child were killed in the Silver Bridge disaster on Dec. 15. …”

Most Goodyear workers who commuted by boat left the shore and crossed below any barge that was tied up there — almost always one barge at a time. For whatever reason, this night this boat went above the barge, lost power and was swept under the barge by the current.

The river crossings continued until the Silver Memorial Bridge opened to traffic on Dec. 15, 1969, two years to the day after the Silver Bridge fell. It probably was the fastest that a bridge over the Ohio River went from concept to completion after World War II, and in this day of public hearings and environmental studies and such, it likely will not be equaled.

As for the Goodyear plant, it was eventually sold to Shell Chemical and again to M&G Polymers. M&G shut down the plant in recent months and may have found a buyer.

So should Prose and Fellure be counted as victims of the Silver Bridge collapse? Although the official list does not count them as such, some people in the Gallipolis area count them as indirect victims.